The rising Covid death and hospitalisation counts, only halfway through autumn, make a new case for urgency about isolation pay, improved pay and budgets in the NHS and care, upgrading ventilation, and workers’ control of workplace safety.
And for renewing efforts to get jabs to vax-sceptics, and to restore something comparable to the mild Covid curbs, like mask mandates and limits on entry to large indoors public gatherings, in force in other West European countries.
The high case count now partly reflects high testing, but the UK’s current death count is two and a half times Germany’s, eight times France’s, Italy’s, or Spain’s, 11 times Sweden’s.
With wide vaccination the UK death count is one-tenth of what it was in early 2021 when case counts were comparable to now, but it’s rising.
Surveys of blood donors suggest 98% of over-16s have Covid-19 antibodies. With the pre-Delta virus, counts would be falling. With Delta, and even more the new AY.4.2 variant, they aren’t. And we can’t know how inaccurate that 98% figure is for the whole population, as against blood donors.
The Tories scrapped all curbs from 19 July, apparently in the hope that high levels of infection in late summer would generate protection against winter’s greater indoors-crowding and the ill-understood seasonality of the virus.
Now they are trying boosters and jabs for 12-15 year olds as a dodge. Those may have some little Covid-curbing effect, but for now at the expense of slowing the spread of jabs to older and frail people at high risk in poorer countries.
The Tories also rely on people continuing voluntary curbs. Figures from the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine show we still average only about four conversation-type contacts per day (vs 11 pre-Covid, two or three in lockdowns), and fewer than 50% of employed people are in the workplace each work day (vs 35% in early-2020 lockdown). Most people still wear masks. But observance is fading.
The parliamentary report on the government’s record on Covid published 12 October was a missed opportunity to inform us for the next stage.
It seems to have been largely shaped by Jeremy Hunt, Tory health minister 2012-18. Since Hunt was defeated by Johnson for Tory leader, he has been a backbench committee chair looking for another chance for the top job when Johnson’s bubble bursts.
Around 12 March 2020 Hunt started criticising the government for not moving faster to lockdown. On 9 March it had announced that it would move to restrictions, but slowly. The report is mostly an exercise in Hunt puffing himself for that foresight. (Johnson u-turned to rapid lockdown on 16 March, and introduced the legislation on 23 March).
With hindsight, we know the scientists advising the government had the facts wrong then. There were already thousands of Covid cases rather than the dozens they counted. The virus had been introduced to Britain in February and early March by over a thousand different “Patients Zero” travelling from Italy and other countries.
Even in March, an earlier lockdown would have been better. How much better, we don’t know. The report gives only casual mention to the lack of isolation pay, the rundown of NHS and local public health and social care resources before 2020, the web of private sub-contractors that made quick NHS responses difficult and has now produced 43,000 faulty test results, and the broader social inequalities which made for a high toll. For all of those Hunt himself bears much responsibility.