During the Second World War, one of the messages that was regularly repeated was that: “Careless talk costs lives”. In the war against covid that should read, “Wishful thinking costs lives.”
As I write, the United Kingdom has the third highest death toll per head from Covid-19 in the entire world. In recent weeks the situation has worsened. The recent death toll here has been the highest anywhere in the world. If you listen to the nightly briefings from government ministers, then you might reasonably conclude that international comparisons aren’t helpful, and Britain’s recent problems are down to a piece of bad luck and the sudden break out of a new, more virulent strain of the virus. You might also reasonably conclude that the UK vaccination programme is going well and so we’ll eventually emerge from our problems and be able to get back to normal.
Unfortunately, there is a rather strong element of wishful thinking in that assessment. Vaccination is going to help enormously and the UK really is ahead of other nations on its programme. That is a genuine achievement. Unfortunately, it is not going to be enough.
For a start, not everyone who is vaccinated is safe. That is particularly true for anyone who has only been vaccinated once. It will not be entirely safe to go out and mix freely if you have had your shot in the arm, until there is a very low incidence of infection in the wider population. Since it will be months before a herd immunity level of vaccination has been achieved, and RNA viruses regularly mutate, it is important not to get too optimistic. It is going to take more than just vaccination to get this under control.
What the country needs to have working is the strategy that has succeeded in so many other countries. Test, trace and enforced isolation. Businesses are now operating as normal in Wuhan where this problem first broke out – because people can’t spread a disease if they are kept apart from others. Passengers coming off aircraft can’t bring in new waves of infection if they are placed in compulsory isolation and that isolation is enforced.
There is no getting away from the hard reality that properly enforced quarantine arrangements work. Hoping that everyone can live safely with a small residue of infected people and a lot of vaccine protection is not known to work. It is an untested experiment. Enforced quarantine arrangements are going to be necessary for many months and probably years.
At the moment, in the middle of frighteningly large numbers of new infections, achieving that in the UK must be incredibly challenging. The time when it was possible was the summer. Back then, we knew that the disease was very dangerous but numbers were getting down to levels where it was realistically possible to get firm control over individual outbreaks. Tracing a few dozen cases and making sure all the contacts isolate themselves is difficult but quite achievable.
If it had been done efficiently and with sufficient vigour and proper enforcement, the UK could have got infection rates down to near zero over the summer. Instead, the Johnson government chose to give in to wishful thinking. For month after month, they allowed flights to arrive in the UK without any testing of arrivals and without any compulsory quarantine. Indeed, they told people it was fine to fly off on summer holidays where they would inevitably mix with people from around the world.
That naïve optimism over the summer cost lives. It was driven by a fear of damaging British business, which is perhaps understandable. No one wants to wreck the lives of people who have worked hard to build up a small business. Yet it doesn’t help anyone in business to encourage international flights for a few weeks only to have to lock the entire economy down for months. In China, the economy grew last year by 2.3 percent despite them having little advanced warning that they had a major health care problem on their hands. In the UK, business contracted heavily. We are an island nation that had weeks of advanced notice.
The same desperate enthusiasm to let businesses open before it was wise is what lies behind the current lockdown. In the run up to Christmas, a string of scientific advisers queued up to inform the government that infections were rising alarmingly and we needed a stronger lockdown. When the prime minister eventually listened and strengthened the regional lockdown system, he was faced by a major rebellion amongst his backbenchers. Not because they were angry that he had delayed for so long. Because they wanted him to do less.
Those 50 backbenchers who pressured Johnson to delay and to do as little as possible, have a great deal to answer for. Wishful thinking is the best that they can be accused of. Killing people and doing huge damage to the businesses they were supposed to be protecting would be more accurate. Careless government costs lives. The determination of a few extremist Conservative MPs to open everything as quickly as possible now looks desperately reckless. Yet there are still Yorkshire MPs on the government’s backbenches who haven’t changed their minds. Philip Davies, the hard-right Conservative MP for Shipley, was still opposing lockdown restrictions on 5 January, whilst local hospitals were run off their feet battling with horrendous caseloads.
He is one of many MPs on the government side who believe that the solution to almost every problem is to employ private contractors. Sometimes that does work. Often it doesn’t. When it comes to healthcare, it is rarely a successful approach. These naïve private enterprise obsessives might like to consider the relative track record of the public sector and the private sector during this pandemic. The test and trace system was contracted out. The results of doing that have not been impressive. By contrast, the vaccine roll out is happening via the NHS. It is on time and the consensus is that it is happening efficiently.
Indeed, in Yorkshire local GPs have moved so quickly on vaccinating those over 80s that the government is deliberately redirecting supplies to the South East. And lying to the public about what they have done. The editor of the Yorkshire Post, James Mitchinson, had to use his front page to inform readers that he had been subject to a nasty campaign of lies and bullying for printing the simple truth. Anyone with the remotest concern about freedom of the press would do well to read his incandescent editorial.
Curiously, people who write for regional newspapers care about the truth. Equally curiously, people who dedicate their lives to helping others are often quite good at organising things. Compare their efforts with the squalid cynicism of the friends of this government who received a large contract to supply £30 parcels of school meal contents. We are all entitled to be rather less impressed by that and to ask a lot of questions about why this government insists on manipulating the truth and contracting out public services.