It matters that deaths from covid are still high and infection rates are at record levels. Covid’s effect on the country will take more than the collective optimism Boris Johnson often encourages us to adopt, keen as ever to shore up his unearned reputation as the nation’s saviour from covid. Meanwhile, Rishi Sunak as chancellor has allied himself to the ‘nothing to see here’ stance on covid, to duck yet another inconvenient economic imperative.
Current statistics underline the covid burden on the NHS and wider society
On 19 April the government’s website showed 1,483 covid deaths for the last week (within 28 days of a positive covid test). This is broadly at the same level as last week, having increased significantly in early April. The government’s figures on infection rates are widely believed to be unreliable since free testing was removed and public self-testing and reporting has declined.
The Office for National Statistics (ONS) estimates that 1 in 14 people in England currently have covid (1 in 13 in Wales, 1 in 17 in Scotland and 1 in 19 in Northern Ireland). While there are tentative signs of infections declining in some age groups, the rates appear to have plateaued at a high level for teenagers and older people (70 years and over). ONS estimates across the UK amount to 4.2m infections. These estimates are based on testing on samples of the population carried out as a study not on public reporting. They are more reliable than the government statistics.
Johnson invited us to indulge him in his latest wishful thinking that covid could be ticked off as ‘done’. When he announced we could abandon all precautions that had been in place, he included a proviso for all of us to continue to take personal responsibility in exercising sensible precautions. But any expectation that public could be relied on to exercise sound personal judgement was shot through by the revelations of behaviour of the prime minister, officials and ministers, who broke the covid rules that they themselves had made law, by attending parties in 10, Downing Street.
Covid stats remain high
The current level of infection results in many people unable to function in their work roles because they have to take time off to recuperate and avoid exposing colleagues, customers and business partners to covid. Time off work also increases the spread of the virus in households. Whether by choice or by default the government has returned to its earlier pre-occupation with herd immunity, even though this is evidently not dependable given many people have caught the virus several times and the virus produces variants.
This is the time when the country needs as many medical staff as possible to be working to reduce the backlog on NHS treatments and operations. As many teachers as possible to make up for precious lost time that young people’s education has suffered from over the past two years. As many airport staff as possible working to restore the economy. The last thing any of these already stretched services need is to be depleted further by covid.
The current stats are yet more evidence of a pattern in which this government is entrenched. In facing any challenge, especially one it would rather not have to deal with, it can be guaranteed that the government will first hope it goes away, or will operate belatedly from blinkered ideology. Then it will abandon itself to wishful thinking, often by ignoring the problem or constructing a case that suggests the problem is resolved. Finally, it will shirk accountability when reality doesn’t co-operate.
Government covid strategy
The government’s initial strategy, after a period of fatal inertia before recognising that covid had the potential to cause huge damage to the UK, was to position its response primarily as protection for the NHS. Under no circumstances was the NHS to be overwhelmed. At the point when the pandemic’s likely progress was not well understood, the government started monitoring two data sets:
- The numbers hospitalised and by implication the direct burden on NHS services
- The number of deaths following a positive test, as a measure of societal impact of covid
As the undoubted benefit of the vaccination programme emerged, the government continued to focus on the criteria of deaths and hospitalisation. Looking only for positive trends in these measures in the hope of being able to declare ‘mission accomplished’ is an inadequate response to managing the transition out of the pandemic. The government’s thinking seems to have been stuck in a ‘hospitalisations and deaths’ rut, through which they are now inured to the numbers of deaths as long as they don’t exceed previous peaks.
Omicron variants have had a totally predictable and lingering impact. The scale of current supposedly less-disabling covid infections does not always affect the NHS directly but does prevent workers from all walks of life being able to go to work without spreading the virus further. The government’s failure to imagine this depletion of the active workforce means it has not been addressed it. If that is an unfair judgment of ministers’ imagination, then it’s all the more damning of their failure to prevent what was foreseeable and is now unfolding.
Problems the government doesn’t want to face any more
A fundamental problem now, as is so often the case, lies with the prime minister. Government responses to real world problems are mediated by how they will make Johnson look. Firstly, he doesn’t want to resurrect the need for precautions and dent the popular myth that he has led us to a post-covid promised land, albeit from a disastrously late initial response to covid that was entirely of his making. More importantly, he knows he cannot rely on the goodwill of British citizens to accept a return to covid precautions and restrictions, given his own failure to respect them.
So, pretending everything is just fine is the only course of action he has left. The cost of that is being borne by the NHS, the teaching profession, the key workers that kept our lives going during the darkest days of the pandemic and many others. Hardly a day goes by without another organisation or business sector emphasising the stress and the operational difficulties faced by healthy staff due to absences from work of their covid-suffering colleagues. Moreover, the effect of long covid on sufferers goes unacknowledged by the government, in spite of those suffering from it trying to draw attention to their disabling long-term symptoms. Estimates vary but the numbers of people who are reporting long-term symptoms from covid was in the range of 1 to 1.5 million at the end of January 2022.
It would have been sensible to retain some simple precautions, like mask wearing. This would have been accepted, albeit reluctantly, by the majority of British people. That is, had it not been touted by Tory MPs from across the party as an intrusion on personal freedom, or had Jacob Rees-Mogg not been suggesting to the public that covid regulations were an overkill regime. Rees-Mogg’s cynical ploy is to get Johnson off the hook for Partygate and pander to the public’s declining tolerance of covid regulations. The nation’s health is a casualty of the protection he seeks for the prime minster and his pandering to the popular desire to be free of the pandemic.
The retention of some free testing is another element of collective protection that would have meant the elderly in particular were not heading back into the realms of the most infected by the Omicron virus. Given 195,8400 people were in hospital with a covid infection over the seven days up to 11 April, although at a level well below the peak of the pandemic, NHS services are still diverted to significant number of covid cases and away from dealing with the backlog of treatments across the range of health care.
The role of the key workers is still vital
Sadly, the goodwill and emotional resources of the same key workers hailed as national heroes no more than 18 months ago, are now being abused by the government who wish to abdicate responsibility for what happens to the country now we are in a different phase of the pandemic. Tacitly declaring victory is enough for our leaders to take their eye off the ball and hope we all do the same.
How empty those proclamations of government gratitude now seem for the mentally, emotionally or physically drained key workers who are doing their own jobs while also standing in for colleagues off work with covid. We still rely on them to keep the country afloat. In seeking to move on and leave the country to pick up the pieces, the government makes us all hostages to fortune.