23rd May 2021
Surge testing – increased across the UK
The race to extend vaccination to younger age groups across the UK, to stop the spread of the so called Indian variant of the COVID 19 virus, has stepped up a gear in the past week. Six local authority areas are part of a surge testing programme, with mobile testing units and vaccination buses being provided, to increase take up of the vaccines. More could follow as infection rates associated with the variant continue to increase.
Latest scientific evidence appears to suggest that both Astra Zeneca and Pfizer vaccines are almost as effective against the Indian variant as against the currently more prevalent Kent variant. This has led Health Secretary, Matt Hancock, to pronounce that the government is still on target for its roadmap date of 21st June for lifting restrictions on work, travel and social distancing.
While the more widespread availability of vaccination is clearly necessary, the official optimism displayed by Hancock regarding the roadmap appears to fly in the face of the governments own mantra to follow the data, not the dates.
The Sunday Times estimated recently that the UK government’s failure to close the borders with India soon enough, because Boris Johnson did not want to offend Indian Prime Minister, Narendra Modi, while negotiating a trade deal, allowed in at least 20,000 passengers from India to the UK. This was at a time when other countries such as New Zealand and Hong Kong were completely stopping all flights from India.
The World Health Organization has identified the virus which originated in India, B.1.617, as a “variant of concern” because it is at least as transmissible as the Kent variant, potentially even more so. This means it can spread through the unvaccinated population in particular more quickly and potentially accelerate out of control, hence the current race for vaccination.
With indoor social mixing having increased since the 17th May, with the doors to pubs, restaurants and performance venues being open, the conditions for viral spread are far greater than the recent lockdown period. The potential for a significant third wave of the pandemic is a real possibility.
While public health issues should be front and centre in the midst of a pandemic the Tories, as ever, have one eye on their voter popularity and the wishes of their industry backers. For many in the Tory camp opening up the economy, almost at any cost, is still the number one priority. Popular pressure to allow foreign travel, fuelled by intense lobbying from the airline industry, is also pushing the government to be less rigorous than it should in relation to international travel.
The traffic light system currently in place makes little sense and appears to have little logic to it. A much clearer position would be to ensure that international travel, both into and from the UK, is conditional upon proof of full vaccination and a negative PCR test. In the short term the emphasis must be on travelling only for essential family or business reasons, rather than encouraging the mass take up of beach holidays.
At the end of the day, the virus moves when infectious people move, and unless it is possible to be sure that those on the move are not infectious, the clear position should be that people stay put. Avoiding a third wave and another national lockdown is in everyone’s interest, for economic reasons, but also to protect the mental health of many who have suffered social isolation and loneliness during the lockdown periods.
More important still however is the need to prevent further unnecessary pressure upon the NHS through hospitalisation and to reduce unnecessary deaths. This is especially the case as the vaccination programme is offering hope and, through the efforts of locally co-ordinated NHS, public health and community volunteering, is making a difference. With the prospect of the finish line in sight the need to stay focussed on the data, not the dates, is more important than ever. Otherwise, the perceived short term gain will not be worth the long term pain.