Ever since so-called ‘Freedom Day’ in July, when the legal requirement to wear face coverings in England ended along with other Covid regulations, the number of mask-wearers has dropped, even as coronavirus cases are on the rise again. This is most noticeable in my home town Brighton, where even staff in shops and banks are no longer bothering to wear a mask or provide hand sanitisers at the door, and public transport is more and more crowded with non-mask wearers. Small wonder that the number of Covid cases locally has shot up in recent weeks.
In contrast, friends who ventured back to Europe on holiday this summer report the widespread use of face covering indoors and compulsory Covid passes to enter restaurants and museums. Countries such as France, Italy, Germany and Portugal have all adopted these measures, apparently without fuss or undue opposition, and kept Covid cases low in comparison to the UK, where case numbers recently topped the 50,000 mark in one day. The UK now has the highest number of Covid cases in Europe and the fourth highest in the world. So why is the government still trumpeting Britain’s response to the pandemic as a success story and refusing to bring in a so-called plan B to tackle this worrying increase?
‘One of the UK’s worst ever public health failures’
A recent searing report by a group of cross-party MPs on the handling of the coronavirus pandemic calls it “one of the UK’s worst ever public health failures.” It criticises the government for initially adopting a herd immunity approach, delaying lockdowns and border closures, failing to protect vulnerable people in care homes and running an unsuccessful test and trace programme. A sense of “British exceptionalism,” “groupthink” and a “fatalistic approach” hampered the government’s and scientists’ responses to the pandemic, compared to many south-east Asian countries which had previous experience of Sars and Mers and adopted early protective measures that kept case numbers low.
Falling behind in vaccinations
Despite the UK’s early success with the development and rollout of vaccines, which is praised in the MPs’ report, at least 11 countries in Europe have now overtaken Britain in Covid vaccination rates. For instance, 79% of the Spanish population are now fully vaccinated compared to 67% in the UK.
There has also been a very slow rollout of the vaccine booster programme. There is currently a growing shortfall between the numbers of people eligible for a booster vaccination and those who have received one – only half of the over-80s so far. Information about how to obtain booster jabs has been hard to come by and at present rates it would be spring 2022 before everyone eligible has had a third vaccination, with the concern that those most vulnerable will be unprotected during winter.
The government continues to argue that “vaccines are our best line of defence” against Covid, while many thousands remain unvaccinated, and the evidence of rapidly rising cases and increasing deaths shows that vaccines by themselves are insufficient.
Many children left unprotected
Although Covid infections in England are still highest among school-age children aged 7-11, the government has been pursuing what Dr Pam Jarvis calls a “mass herd immunity experiment” with young people. This relies on the fact that most children only experience mild symptoms. The UK has only recently started vaccinating 12-15-year-olds, whereas Denmark and Spain have vaccinated most of their child population.
Whilst it was clearly important for children to return to school in the autumn, after over a year of interrupted education, very few protective measures were introduced to offset the removal of bubbles and mask wearing. Initial findings from the Children and Long Covid study indicate that one in seven children still have symptoms up to 15 weeks later. The new Secretary of State for Education, Nadhim Zahawi, only reluctantly conceded that schools could authorise absences for vulnerable children after pressure from groups such as the Good Law Project. Most schools are still waiting for airflow monitors which were promised months ago.
No Plan B yet… what will it take?
The Health Secretary, Sajid Javid, recently announced the government’s Plan B, that might be introduced in England to prevent “unsustainable pressure” on the NHS. These additional measures would consist of a return to compulsory mask wearing, some kind of Covid passports and working from home. Yet this would only bring England in line with the restrictions still in place in the other countries of the UK. Unlike England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland have kept the requirement to wear face coverings. In Scotland and Wales, Covid vaccine passes are required when attending nightclubs or large events.
On October 26, 263 Covid-related deaths were announced, the highest figure since March 2021. Yet Downing Street continues to assert that there are still no plans to introduce Plan B measures, despite calls to do so by the British Medical Association (BMA), scientists and trade unions. The government is delaying a decision, hoping that half-term will act as a fire break on infections.
This feels like déjà vu. We have been there before several times in the last 18 months, with delays leading to more severe restrictions because of Boris Johnson’s gung-ho attitude. What is the betting that we will have a Plan C before long? Let’s hope not.
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