Fighting the War on Covid
Welcome to Normielisation, a semi-regular newsletter looking at British politics, culture and society
Due to a sense of humour failure by Twitter, I’m temporarily locked out of my account. This is frustrating, as I have a lot of things I want to say about the announcement this week of a new, more infectious strain of COVID-19.
Some of the more intellectually challenged members of the commentariat have suggested that the news of a new strain might be overegged to cover up previous policy mistakes and force a Christmas U-turn. I find this unconvincing. In a technical briefing, Public Health England have stated, with high confidence, that this new variant of the coronavirus has “substantially increased transmissibility”. It is a grim irony that the disease is now spreading more rapidly, just at the point that we are beginning to turn the tide with vaccinations. This will have disastrous consequences unless we act now.
This new highly transmissible virus has already been detected around the country. This means that existing restrictions, including the new tier 4, are unlikely to prevent mass death caused by health system collapse. The virus is growing exponentially and we are not vaccinating people fast enough to stem the flow. A collapse in the health system means thousands will die who otherwise would not have. Many of these will be people who can expect to live many more happy years.
This is utterly depressing, but all is not lost. Just because we have failed before in our policy response to the virus does not mean we need to fail again. We have already vaccinated 500,000 people- a great success. The way the mortality rate of the virus increases with age means we can prevent two-thirds of deaths by vaccinating just 9% of the population- care home residents and people over 80- and 99% of deaths by vaccinating just over 48% of the country. Not only do they prevent deaths, but vaccines also stop patients from needing hospital treatment, helping to prevent the health system from collapsing. The only way we can get out of thousands of preventable deaths is by ramping up vaccination, while acting fast to stem the spread of the virus.
What can the Government do to support this? Here are some suggestions:
Declare an immediate, national lockdown in an attempt to replicate the sort of public compliance we saw in March. In particular, we should:
Announce the closure of places of worship immediately. This is a very hard thing to do at this time of year, but the exception announced on Saturday was a mistake. Churchgoers are much older than the general population, meaning they are more at risk of death from the virus. Despite the common “covid secure” meme, it is not possible to make churches safe. It is unconscionable to allow services with singing to go ahead at this time. Not closing churches will kill people
Extend school closures till at least February. Again, this is a very hard thing to do, particularly given the childcare that many schools provide. However, there is some evidence that the new strain spreads more easily among children. We should not delay acting on this evidence like we did with masks. Again, bringing children back into school will lead to unnecessary deaths.
Close the borders for everything but freight. While the new strain is likely to have already begun to seed from the UK, we should unilaterally close our borders to lessen this. There are geopolitical reasons for doing this- we are a week and a half away from severing our relationship with the EU- being seen to be ineffective and weak in the face of this threat will cause us international reputational damage at the point we are stepping out into the world.
Be clear on transmission. Re-emphasise the role that airborne spread has in transmitting this disease, and clarify and apologise for earlier advice on surface transmission, which continues to make people act in unsafe ways.
Focus all Government resources on Vaccine rollout. All non-essential resources of Government should be redirected for to support planning and delivery of a hastened vaccine rollout. The barriers to achieving the level of vaccination we need should be identified and dealt with. in particular, we should:
Offer MHRA unlimited resources to hasten approval of the Astrazeneca Oxford vaccine and speed up other reviews.
Bring forward work to ensure the distribution system for the Oxford vaccine is in place, so we can begin a mass vaccination programme as soon as approval is granted. We should bring in the military to support this work, as we did with the PPE crisis earlier this year.
Review the vaccine task force decisions urgently to see if the manufacturing situation has changed and we can have more Moderna or other international vaccines delivered sooner.
Sweeten the pill. I acknowledge all of the above is incredibly tough and will cause misery to tens of thousands of people. It is worth it. As per my last newsletter, Government should stress that this will be temporary and announce a “Victory Over Covid” extended bank holiday weekend to allow people time with their families later in the year. They should also extend furlough and the temporary increase in Universal Credit payments until that date, and give generous grants to businesses. The “treasury brain” meme that we cannot afford a robust economic response to Covid is false. We can easily afford to service any ensuing debt. Failure to support families and businesses adequately is a political choice.
As I’ve made clear, we need to act fast to slow the collapse of our healthcare system and lessen totally unnecessary deaths. We should now be on a war footing with Covid. Not acting now is equivalent to Thatcher sitting back and shrugging her shoulders when the Argentines took the Falklands. Not acting is a fatalistic admission that national decline is inevitable and there is nothing we can do about it. This is not true.
This will not be painless. I acknowledge that all the above actions will cause real hardship and pain to people. But they are worth it. The mental health costs of restrictions are undoubtedly high, but so are the mental health costs of overflowing hospital wards and dead relatives- many of whom would not be dead if we’d brought the virus under control earlier this year. Similarly, damage to business and livelihoods can be lessened significantly by financial support.
For too long, the Government has listened to voices in the media and in Parliament that simper and shrug and wring hands about the impact of restrictions on the economy, businesses and mental health- all while pushing a, frankly, pro-virus agenda. Many of them were wrong about the speed at which we would have a vaccine. They have blood on their hands. Family members and loved ones are dead because of inaction and an inability to take necessary decisions at the top level of Government. More will die if we do not act now.