24th July 2021
Herd immunity at the heart of Tory strategy?
How much of the British government’s approach to the pandemic is ruling class bias and how much sheer incompetence can be hard to disentangle. There is no doubt that decision making has been driven more by economic considerations than public health outcomes, at least until the public health question becomes too overwhelming to ignore.
The three lockdowns to date have all followed this pattern. Clear advice from scientists and public heath experts has indicated that at each stage lockdowns should have happened two to three weeks earlier but the government, in thrall to the private sector, has allowed infection rates to escalate to the point where intervention and lockdown was unavoidable.
The sense throughout the pandemic has been of a government claiming to be led by the science but not really being prepared to keep up with it, especially if it contradicted the desires of the private sector to open up and get back to profit making.
The latest dogmatic adherence to Step 4 of the government roadmap reflects the same thinking. Warwick University and Imperial College London have been predicting for weeks that, based upon the government’s plans, a spike in infections would occur in mid-August to early September. The two universities have only diverged on how high the spike might be but a daily infection rate of 100,000 a day is even accepted by Health Secretary, Sajid Javid, and some indicators suggest that could get as high as 250,000 infections per day.
It does not require the skills of a SAGE scientist to figure out that this level of infection will increase pressure upon the health service, due to higher levels of hospitalisation, and that it will result in more deaths, in spite of the relative success of the vaccination programme.
The Tory government have released all mandatory requirements to work from home, wear face coverings or to socially distance. Nightclubs, theatres, restaurants, bars and events can all function without any legal requirement to impose controls or check vaccination status. In effect the government has given the virus carte blanche to run riot through the younger population, many of whom are unvaccinated or have only had a single dose.
Young people are more resilient and less likely to die from the COVID virus. They are less likely to end up in hospital. However, something being less likely to happen does not mean that it will not. The scientific understanding of how the virus behaves is still in its infancy. There is preliminary evidence to suggest that young people are more at risk of the condition being termed long COVID, where symptoms of fatigue and lethargy can persist for months.
It is increasingly being seen that even double vaccination is not an absolute defence against the virus, although severity of symptoms and likelihood of death are significantly reduced.
The Tory government has been keen to present its strategy as the only course of action, that the roadmap is irreversible, although now tempered with some words of caution. The reality however is that the government has had choices at every stage of the pandemic and has made political judgments to inform the actions it has chosen.
Delaying the widely misnamed Freedom Day from the 19th July to the end of the summer for example, combined with a concerted drive to increase double vaccination levels, would have given greater protection to individuals as well as reducing community transmission. The argument against this has been that it would simply delay a spike in infection till the autumn. A spike in a population with higher levels of vaccination would surely be less of a spike in the long term though?
Meanwhile those who thought that the relaxing of controls on 19th July would mean a rush back to normal trading are finding that the streets are not paved with as much gold as they anticipated.
Greater social mixing increases the scope for community transmission and the so called ‘pingdemic’, where individuals are advised to isolate by the NHS test and trace app, is impacting upon businesses across the country. More than 600,000 people in England and Wales were advised to isolate by the app last week.
The economic impact upon those workers on low wages, insecure contracts and unable to access financial support remains significant.
The government are now scrambling to set up 200 testing sites across the country with a view to introducing a system of daily testing, rather than isolating, for workers in key sectors of the economy, including food distribution, NHS and care workers. However, claims from the police, fire service and transport staff are now being made to be included as essential workers, not required to isolate but to engage in the daily testing regime instead.
Capitalism is characterised by anarchy in production, uncertainty and job insecurity for many and decision making which prioritises private greed over public need. That would be in any normal year. The pandemic has exacerbated these aspects of the system itself and they have been further compounded by a Tory government which has lacked any coherent strategic decision making focus.
Insofar as the Tories can be said to have had any consistent strategy during the pandemic it has been to fall back on the concept of herd immunity. That certainly seems to be the strategy for this summer. It is still less than a week since the government released all mandatory controls on 19th July. The full impact of that particular political decision is yet to be felt.