We are living through a paradox. The continuing slow decline in COVID infections and deaths in the UK – which the government is claiming as a success – is happening largely because the population has been ignoring government attempts to get them out and about and spending.
The R rate has stayed just below 1. This means that the number of infections continues to slowly decline, though the Prime Minster’s boast that the UK is now testing more people than Germany. France, Italy and Spain simply indicates how much worse the situation is here than there – because we HAVE to carry out those tests.
Keeping safe despite government advice.
Schools. Despite strenuous government attempts to reopen schools before the end of term – as a precondition for getting parents back to work – the continued dogged insistence by the education unions that conditions had to be safe enough to do so meant that this plan had to be abandoned. So, only 16.9% of students were in school on 9 July. This figure had been the same for the preceding two weeks and looks like this. (1)
Imagine if the government had got its way and a significantly larger proportion of students and their teachers had had to go in to school. Is it possible to believe that this would not have had a negative impact on the R rate? There is no doubt that the education unions, led by the NEU, have saved lives.
Shops and pubs and bars. Since reopening, there has similarly been a dramatically reduced footfall in inessential shops, pubs, restaurants and cafes compared to this time last year. Pubs and fast food are running at about 30% of last year’s level, while retail overall is still 40% down and restaurants are 60% down. The effect of this cautious response on the part of the public has been to keep the R rate just declining.
So, the more the government’s boosterism succeeds in enticing people out, the more likely it is that the R rate will go back up. The conflict between these clashing imperatives will be played out throughout August. Boris Johnson is gambling that the current rate of decline is going to continue at its current rate – always a risky thing to take for granted – which would mean that the virus would be almost eliminated by late October. But at the same time he is taking measures to further significantly ease the restrictions which have allowed that decline to take place. If this overcomes the caution currently being shown by the population as much as he wants it to, and everyone is enticed out by the mouth watering prospect of a half price pizza on an August Tuesday, a further slow down in the rate of decline can be assumed and a rebound cannot be ruled out.
A further paradox is that the understandable caution being shown by most of the population has made the government wake up to the value of masks. This is not so much the result of them suddenly realising that a virus transmitted by aerosol projection from the breath will be severely restricted by mask wearing; more a desperate search for something – anything – that can boost confidence enough to get more people out and about. They have had to pay the price of a few fringe idiots on their libertarian wing – who see the requirement to become slightly uncomfortable too much of a price to pay to keep their neighbours safe – demonstrably cutting up their Conservative Party cards on social media in protest at this tyrannical requirement and staging a demo at Speakers Corner against the threat of vaccination and being microchipped by Bill Gates and George Soros. Takes all sorts.
More seriously, the government’s confidence that any further outbreaks can be identified and tackled at a local level is undermined by the current ineffectiveness of the contact tracing system; which needs to be contacting at least 50% of the people who have contracted the virus to work effectively. Over the weekend of 18-19 July it was only contacting 37%.
In Blackburn , a local hot spot possibly on the verge of local lock down, only 44% of 779 close contacts of one infected person had been followed up. (2)
In his July 17th speech, the Prime Minister said that he was hoping for “a more significant return to normality from November at the earliest – possibly in time from Christmas” while at the same time conceding that “as we approach winter, we will need to go further – not least as many more people will show Covid-like symptoms as a result of seasonal illnesses.” This could be an understatement. Last week, senior Doctors and Scientists convened by the Academy of Medical Sciences warned that a second wave could kill 120 000 people on top of the 65 000 excess deaths we have already had.
Back to the Office? Perversely the government is pushing for people who are currently safely working at home to go back into work from August 1st, presumably on the public transport they should be avoiding at the busy times they will be expected to use it. This contradicts the advice of the Chief Scientific Officer, Sir Patrick Vallance, who flatly stated that “there is absolutely no reason to change” this guidance. In ignoring this the UK government is following the example of the USA, where Centre for Disease Control guidelines for reopening schools have been shunted aside as “impractical” and “expensive” by President Trump. The council chair of the BMA, Dr Chand Nagpual, warned “To introduce measures for shops, but not other situations where Physical distancing is not possible – including some workplaces – is illogical and adds to confusion and the risks of the virus spreading.”
If Boris Johnson still claims to be “following the Science”, he is doing so from further and further behind; which means that he will neither eliminate the virus nor preside over an economic recovery. We are heading for a feisty autumn. The next Blog will look at the economy.