Winner of the New Statesman SPERI Prize in Political Economy 2016

Tuesday 1 June 2021

Worried about another COVID wave? Here are some pictures of Johnson getting married again


When cases in another country start growing rapidly, you quarantine in hotels people coming from that country. If they have existing variants of concern, you do the same. You do not wait because the PM has a state visit planned hoping things will get better. Once a variant of concern enters the country, you direct all resources to isolating that variant and preventing spread. You do not persist with a failed test and trace system because it is politically embarrassing to overhaul it. You make payments to those asked to isolate automatically.

Our government made all these mistakes, and so now we are at the beginning of a new COVID wave. Yet rather than stop further relaxation of the lockdown (not doing stage 3), this government carried on regardless. It poured petrol on a fire, and crossed its fingers that it would be OK. Actually even that is too generous. It reduced lock down restrictions because the PM and the rest of the cabinet were prepared to see another wave of cases, hospitalisations and a fair number of deaths in the UK. The new variant is spreading rapidly in schools in areas where it is concentrated, so what did the government do - it told people in secondary schools they didn’t need to continue wearing masks.

All this will come as a big surprise to most people. They will not have watched the occasional interview with an expert warning that this will happen. They will certainly not have read the SAGE minutes predicting this will happen. The media seem to only do crises when they happen, rather than before they happen. Perhaps they are scared of being accused of spreading panic, but the media really should sound the warning bells when PHE, after pressure from the government, starts delaying publication of data on the spread of the Indian variant in schools. Not only does this media silence put no pressure on the government to prevent the crisis, it also creates the impression that this was an act of god that had nothing to do with the government’s actions.

We know the Indian variant spreads a lot more rapidly than anything we already have, and it has become the dominant form of COVID in the UK in mid-May. It is now the dominant form in most regions. We also have evidence that one dose of vaccine offers less protection against this variant than against other forms of COVID, but two doses does offer a similar amount of protection. Around half of the UK adult population has had two doses of vaccine, meaning the other half have one or none at all. That, according to SAGE projections available before the government went to stage 3, could cause a wave of hospitalisation similar to what happened in the New Year. [1]

The number of deaths should be less than past waves, but we are still talking about many people dying who didn’t need to die. But hospitals are only just beginning to reduce the backlog from other diseases like cancer created by previous COVID waves, and another wave of hospitalisations will reverse that process, leading to yet more deaths from non-COVID causes. Staff at hospitals are also exhausted from a year of this pandemic under a Prime Minister reluctant to lock down until the very last minute, and secretly (until Cummings) wanting to be the mayor in the Jaws film who kept the beaches open. (A long running theme from the PM: see here.)

Of course it is possible that this virus will suddenly start slowing down, and hospitalisations will be less than in the last wave. With the weather finally becoming more summer-like, more social mixing will take place outdoors, and this might limit the spread of this variant. COVID predictions can be wrong, it both directions. But for exactly that reason the Prime Minister cannot know that things will not be so bad in this new wave. He is following dates rather than the data, and yet again not following scientific advice, because he is more interested in giving people the freedom to spread the virus to others. 

A new wave is also highly likely to stop the UK economic recovery in its tracks. If the government does not lockdown when cases are rising, many people will choose to avoid pubs and restaurants. Vaccines, even with two doses, do not give you 100% protection in the middle of a growing pandemic. Plenty of those with a single dose will also avoid taking risks. The underlying myth of the anti-lockdown brigade is that without government lockdowns the economy will continue as normal. It won’t, because most people isolate themselves in a pandemic. The key difference is that voluntary lockdowns are just less effective at lowering cases than those led by the government.

There is also a fallacy in letting people make their own choices, as this government seems to want to do. You can travel to Amber list countries (if they will let you in), but you shouldn’t travel except for exceptional circumstances according to the PM. Many go anyway, partly because they mistake being allowed to for it being safe, but also because they are prepared to take the risk for themselves. It is a fallacy because if they have COVID as they return they can pass it on to others, who had no part in the choice of whether they went abroad.

The Prime Minister seems to think that as long as hospitals can (just) cope it will be OK. However a wave in cases with most people vaccinated is about the most irresponsible thing you could possibly do. It invites new variants to be created that are far better at bypassing the vaccines we have. The more cases you allow when most of the population is vaccinated the greater the chance that a variant will emerge that vaccines are far less effective against. Much of the gains of the vaccination programme could be lost, and we will have to start all over again.

Cummings’ message was that this Prime Minister is exactly the wrong person to be leading us in this pandemic, and most of the media chose to ignore his warnings. On the day the opposition leader effectively accused Johnson of causing thousands of unnecessary deaths in the second half of last year, and warned of the dangers we face today, newspapers had the Prime Minister’s ‘secret’ wedding on their front pages. Will the broadcast media start holding this government and its Prime Minister responsible for past and possible future deaths? Will voters finally realise that they are being lied to by this government all the time, and their lives and livelihoods are at risk as long as Johnson continues as Prime Minister?

[1] This risk is not unique to the UK, which is why some other countries are quarantining new arrivals from the UK. But some are not doing this, so UK travelers are likely to start waves of the Indian variant in enough other countries that its global spread is assured. Perhaps these countries will have vaccinated enough people in time, but the dangers are that others will not and we again have the perfect conditions for an even more dangerous variant to emerge. 

No comments:

Post a Comment

Unfortunately because of spam with embedded links (which then flag up warnings about the whole site on some browsers), I have to personally moderate all comments. As a result, your comment may not appear for some time. In addition, I cannot publish comments with links to websites because it takes too much time to check whether these sites are legitimate.