Washing their hands of it all

10th July 2021

Secretary of State for Health and Social Care Sajid Javid cannot mask reality

The government’s hands, face, space mantra is set to take on a whole new meaning as the government washes its hands of the pandemic, fails to face up to its responsibilities and attempts to put space between its decisions and the rising infection rate.

UK Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, last week confirmed that face masks will no longer be legally required and social distancing rules will be scrapped at the final stage of England’s coronavirus lockdown roadmap. The rule of six inside private homes will be removed and work-from-home guidance abolished, as Johnson said he expected the final step would go ahead as planned on 19th July, following a review of the latest data on 12th July.

In what can only be described as a monumental abdication of responsibility at the height of a public health crisis, the government have resigned from any semblance of leadership and exhorted the public to take personal responsibility for their actions.

Air cover for this strategy was provided by Chief Medical Officer for England, Prof Chris Whitty, who asserted that maintaining the current coronavirus restrictions through the summer would only delay a wave of hospitalisations and deaths rather than reduce them. Whitty stated at the Downing Street briefing last Monday that while scientific opinion was mixed on when to lift the last remaining restrictions in the Government’s roadmap out of lockdown, he believed that doing so in the summer had some advantages over releasing in the autumn.

However, government scientists have said “stronger” restrictions could be needed this autumn and winter. Newly released documents from the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage) reveal that ministers were urged to keep “baseline” restrictions such as face masks and working from home, and warn that new freedoms could create “superspreader” events.

With infections likely to rise to a rate of 100,000 per day pressure is building on an already overstretched NHS.  In part this is due to the increase in hospitalisations, in part due to people with other conditions now coming forward and in part due to the staffing pressures as a result of NHS workers having to isolate.   A letter from the Queen and the awarding of the George Cross is not going to solve the crisis.  A meagre 1% pay award is also scant compensation for the challenges NHS workers have had to face.

The rules on self isolation will also affect a whole range of local government workers if the Tories persist in their proposals for the 19th July.  At present teams maintain social distancing in the workplace meaning that, if a colleague tests positive, entire services do not have to be closed down and individuals can be sent home to isolate.  With the relaxation of social distancing in the workplace a worker who tests positive may have been in contact with any number of co-workers, resulting in the possibility of whole services being sent into isolation.

For frontline local government services, such as libraries and leisure centres, add the public into the mix, with no requirement to socially distance or wear face covering, and the potential for whole sections of service to be shut down are very real.  Add to that the risks faced by social work teams, housing repair staff and those running care homes and the mix becomes even more toxic.

The same rules will also apply to the private sector, where there will be no obligation in pubs, cafes or restaurants to socially distance or use face masks, thus increasing the danger of the virus spreading.  While the level of vaccination across the population will provide some mitigation, the dangers of the summer 2020 ‘eat out to help out’ debacle loom large.  It may be that those led by the right wing Covid Research Group of Tory MPs, who have been banging the drum to put opening up the economy before public health concerns, find that their dream turns quickly to a nightmare for many.

In spite of their talk of ‘levelling up’ the Tories know that the risks associated with the pandemic are more prevalent in the poorer parts of the country.  According to a nine-month inquiry by the Health Foundation charity, into the health impacts of the pandemic, the chances of dying from COVID-19 were nearly four times higher for adults of working age in England’s poorest areas than for those in the wealthiest places. The Foundation said a decade of widening health inequalities and cuts to public services had contributed to the UK’s disproportionately high coronavirus death toll compared with similar countries.

Johnson appears to have signalled his intent by putting Sajid Javid in charge of the Department of Health and Social Care, to replace the hapless Matt Hancock.  A clearer example of putting Dracula in charge of a blood bank could hardly be found.  Javid has said that ending lockdown is his “absolute priority”, it would have been good to see saving lives at the top of that list, and that “we have to learn to live with” coronavirus.

Writing in the Mail on Sunday Javid said,

“… no date we choose will ever come without risk, so we have to take a broad and balanced view. We are going to have to learn to accept the existence of Covid and find ways to cope with it – just as we already do with flu.”

Rising infections may not be resulting in the number of deaths we saw earlier in the year but the government’s de facto herd immunity approach is still allowing the virus to spread at an alarming rate, especially amongst young people and children.  That, in turn, allows for the possibility of further mutations of the virus, potentially resistant to current vaccines, putting us all back to square one.

With one of the highest death rates in the world, and the highest in Europe, is this really what the Tories mean by ‘levelling up’?

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