Just when you thought it was safe to go back to the hospital…

One of the odd things about people acting as though the COVID pandemic is over is that it increases the number of people who keep catching it. My Mum and Dad, both 92 and who very rarely go out, recently picked it up on a visit to Hospital, after sitting in a waiting room for quite some time surrounded by people without masks on. Both have got through it, Mum without symptoms, Dad being quite bad with it for three days, underlining again the relative vulnerability of men (weaker sex and all that). Both of them are as vaccinated as you can get and we’re all very thankful for that, as the death rate for people over 80 who are fully vaccinated is 1 in 68. If you have had fewer than 2 vaccinations your chances drop to 1 in 7. Residual vaccine sceptics please note. I’m not saying this to score a point.

So, I went down to Grays and did a very brief socially distanced drop off of some chicken soup my daughter made for them – “give ’em some chicken soup”. “But madam, that won’t help” “It wouldn’t hoit!”

Wandering back through town I stop off for a Capuchino and strudel at Lu Lu’s Cakes and Bakes on the High Street opposite where the Queen’s Hotel used to be. A little gem of a cafe full of pastries and caffeinated smells, staffed by Eastern European women busily doing accounts, with a couple of other grey haired geezers sitting at the tables outside, quietly taking in the breeze and the pale October sunlight. They have a sign on the counter which gains a bit from translation, proclaiming that all of their pastries are freshly made in “our laboratory”. “IGOR! The Strudels!” But the lab does good work. Recommended if you are ever in Grays High Street.

The precinct is busy but determinedly down at heel. An attempt to revive the High Street in the 1970s, complete with multi story car park and killed stone dead by Lakeside opening up in the 80s. The old status stores, M&S, even Woolworths, either migrating there or shutting down. A Poundland. A Burger King. A “Gorgeous in Grays” store. There seem to be a lot of Sacred Heart Jesus posters on sale, a counterpoint to the evangelical revival on display at the mega church at the Eastern end of what used to be Congress House, the old Coop Department Store that we thought was terribly modern in the sixties. The design of these varies, but the Jesus is always very white. In one he points to the blazing heart in his chest with the same sort of understated gesture that a gangbanger might point to a gun – “you don’t want to mess with this”. In another he holds up two fingers in benediction but has a reproachful expression – “I know what you’re thinking, and I’m deeply disappointed”. The fingers are crossed. A woman walks past talking to her mate “He was so fucking rude to me…” The classiest and coziest place in the precinct is the Costa cafe by the High Street entrance, where I pick up a sandwich for the train journey back. Most tables full. A buzz of conversation. A barista straight outa’ Shoreditch, all massive mane of curly hair and beard, brews coffees in a chilled sort of way.

On the way up to the station a tiny black girl gives me a conspiratorial grin as she zooms past on one of those three wheeled scooters.

The journey back goes up the Rainham line. That means we pass Wennington, the small settlement hit hardest by last year’s wildfires during the 40C heatwave. Wennington is one of those unobtrusive landmarks that you tend to take notice of without making a note of. Out beyond Rainham proper and built, presumably, on a bit of land higher and dryer than the big sweep of marshland that surrounds it and sweeps all the way down to Purfleet, so it stands on the horizon. Even expecting to see damage, the state of it is quite a shock. The stubby stone church tower stands at one end like a squat exclamation mark, next to it several houses that have been gutted, just their dividing walls and chimneys pointing blasphemously upwards, then a few houses that look untouched, then several more completely burnt out, blue sky showing where their living rooms and bedrooms should have been, then some more, seemingly normal. Not built back better. Or even built back at all. It stands as a memorial and a warning. We got off lightly in that heatwave, even though the Fire Brigade had more calls than on any day since the end of the Second World War. The winds were light. Next time, and there will be a next time, we might not be so lucky.

The flowers look much brighter in real life!

A sign of hope as I sit at Tower Hill and eat my sandwich somewhere scenic. The moat around the Tower, filled eight years ago with scarlet ceramic poppies in a striking memorial to World War One, is now running riot with wild flowers. The same sort of recreated meadow we have in our local parks but on a grander scale. The sea of colour waving in the wind somehow gentles down the still, grim old fortress, with its thousand year terrible history and hinting that maybe we can do better than we’ve done and, if we don’t, the flowers will still be here when we are long gone.

An acceptable level of risk?

An argument often heard is that “learning to live with Covid” is like living with the risk of dying from alcohol or road accidents. As with the line that “its just like flu“, there is no comparison between the level of risk involved.

For 2020, for which full figures area available, that looks like this.

Covid deaths running at 8 times the rate of alcohol related deaths and 49 times the rate of deaths from road accidents.

The impact of removing safeguards in January, even though many people are continuing to work from home where and when they can and take sensible precautions, has been to plateau the daily death rate at around 250 a day. This is a very high level to be behaving as though there is an acceptable level of risk, even if we assume that new variants will not emerge, setting off further waves.

Alcohol deaths in UK 2020

Road accident deaths in UK 2020

Covid deaths in UK 2020

“Leading the world in living with the virus”?

Sajid Javid’s bluster is the exact opposite of reality. The UK is 25th in the world in death rates. 182 other countries have done better in keeping their people safe – the first duty of government they used to say – and only 24 have done worse. So, perhaps, leading the world in dying with the virus might be a better way to put it.

Diane Abbot’s article in Labour Outlook pointed out that, when compared with the death rates in countries with an active covid suppression strategy, the UK has done spectacularly badly.

  • The UK has had a death rate of 2,274 per million.
  • Australia’s death rate is 112 per million.
  • New Zealand, just 10.6.
  • China, a minds bogglingly small 3.47.

In the press here, this is used as evidence that these countries have been quite mad in not letting their people die in numbers comparable to ours, with headlines like “China’s Zero Covid Tyranny” in the Daily Telegraph.

The single minded ferocity of this line is explained by a simple calculation that they really don’t want people to do, or think through.

If you multiply the per million death rate for these countries by 65, for the 65 million people who live in the UK, you get some very startling figures for how many people would have died had we adopted their policies and had a comparable death rate.

  • A comparable death rate to Australia would have meant that 7,280 people would have died here.
  • A comparable death rate to New Zealand would have meant 687 deaths.
  • A comparable death rate to China would have kept deaths to just 226 during the whole pandemic so far.

That looks like this.

So, who has got this right, and who has got it wrong?

This policy, that we have to “live with the virus” means an acceptance that we will continue to die from it in large numbers. It invites us all to participate in a gigantic piece of disavowal: to look straight at the reality that this virus is ten times as deadly and infectious as the flu and continuing to evolve, and pretend that it isn’t.

The Labour and trade union movement – despite the line of the leadership (Wes Streeting’s surreal “plan to live well with Covid”) should resist going along with delusions of a “return to normalcy.” There are always elephants in the room, but with this policy, there will be viruses too.

Its not like flu! Or “Infect them all! God will recognise His own!”

Figures for England and Wales from ONS

This is why the comments from Sajid Javid and others that “We need to learn to live with” the virus because “sadly, people die of flu as well” are so light minded and not comparing like with like.

Javid says that “in a bad flu year you can sadly lose about 20,000 lives but we don’t shut down our entire country and put in place lots of restrictions to deal with it.” In a good flu year, however, you can lose a few hundred, as we can see here.

The worst years for flu are far less lethal than any year we have had so far with Covid.

Given that it is

  • more transmissible
  • more lethal
  • evolving rapidly

there is no reason to believe that the casualty rates “for many, many years, perhaps forever,” will be lower than they have been in recent months, during which the UK has, in Sajid Javid world, been “leading the way in showing the world how you can live with Covid”. Every one of the average of 359 people who have died every day in the last week lies in their graves as a rebuke to this vainglorious cynicism.

The notion of “endemic”, ie ever present, disease that the government presents is that it will be faded into the background, not too serious, predictable and fairly regular. The wild roller coaster of the successive waves we have seen, and will continue to see, is nothing like that. His remark that we will have to continue to employ “measures”, however “sensible, appropriate and proportionate” is a backhanded admission of that.

His comment yesterday in scrapping the Plan B safeguards that We cannot eradicate this virus” (my emphasis) is an abject admission of failure. The ruling class in the West can no longer even claim to lead humanity.

They can’t eliminate it, because they are not willing to. China keeps managing to do it. Only 2 people died of Covid there last year and they have no intention of following the pressure from the US to abandon their zero Covid policy. If they did, between 3 and 4 million people would die. No doubt Javid would consider that a small price to pay.

The effect of letting the genie back out of the bottle as soon as possible will be seen soon enough. It will slow the downward trajectory in cases, hospitalisations and lead to more people dying than need to. Keir Starmer has called for the data on which this is based to be released. This is beside the point, as the overall data is available. More widely, the pretence that acting as though we are back to normal means that we are back to normal is simply deluded. Labour should break its complicity with this approach, which bakes in permanent crisis from here on.

Operation Dead Meat.

Boris Johnson’s game plan is quite clear. Brass it out. Throw as many underlings under the bus as possible. Try to appease his Party’s right wing – who are the force behind trying to defenestrate him now with a series of increasingly wild policy pronouncements.

The Morning after the night before.
  • Go to war with Radio 4. As if the BBC weren’t right wing enough, with their long succession of lead political commentators who either were or might as well have been Conservative activists (Nick Robinson was in FCS in the 80s at the time they demonstrated in support of Nicaraguan terrorists and sported Hang Nelson Mandela T shirts; Laura Kuenssberg has often seemed to act as a straight conduit for the latest line from Tory central office). Perhaps the success of GB News is what they have in mind. A channel with very little appeal outside the Alt Right bubble.
  • Deploy the Royal Navy in the Channel against refugees seeking safety. This is either bluff – sounds decisive, means nothing – or murderous. What are they going to do? Heroically open fire on dinghies full of desperate people? Or ram them? Leave people to drown or save their lives?
  • Lift Covid safety measures early. Having learned nothing from every other time they’ve done this in the pandemic. Latest government measures have all had this finely tuned “not quite just in time” quality. Cutting the isolation period down to five days from seven means that a third of the people concerned could still be infectious. But, what the hell, it gets more people back to work. Being “past the peak” is not the same thing as being in a sufficiently safe space to open up. Just as “endemic” does not mean that an epidemic is any less lethal – its just means you’ve given up on trying to control it. Current safety measures – however half baked – have case numbers and hospitalisations going down. Deaths are a lagging indicator and still going up (38% up from the previous week on Sunday). Letting them go early means that they will have less effect, which means that the rate of decline will slow and more people will die. A small price to pay for the PM’s political career.
  • Push a Red Scare. The bizarre allegation’s from MI5 that Christine Lee has been conducting “illegal” attempts to “influence” legislators in the interests of the Chinese Communist Party – coming from the team that brought us the Zinoviev Letter, Spycatcher and Weapons of Mass Destruction in Iraq – without specifying what she did that was “illegal” nor charging her with anything. In fact, Priti Patel has admitted that Lee’s behaviour is currently below the criminal threshold to be prosecuted. In other words, what she is supposed to have done was not, in fact, illegal, as claimed by MI5. How it differs from lobbying by other countries, some of them supposed to be allies, has not been defined. Nor why this sort of thing is illegitimate in this case, but not in theirs. All part of developing a Cold War politics of paranoia. Yvette Cooper has, of course, gone along with the government’s approach. Priti Patel has warned that we can expect more of these announcements and floated a change in the law. I doubt any of this will target attempts to “advance the interests” of the United States which are part of the warp and weft of the UK establishment – from the Trilateral Commission to the 5 Eyes Intelligence alliance – which makes the UK security services a local auxiliary of those of the USA – to the Henry Jackson Society and Uncle Sam Cobbly and all. This appears to be an attempt to make it impossible for anyone in politics, academia or the media to suggest that maybe China gets some things right, without being accused of being an agent or a spy; thereby closing down the range of debate and setting up anyone raising awkward facts to be howled down by enraged mobs rather than acknowledge them. The decline of once unchallengeable US dominance really sets us up for a delirious period of irrational politics.

It also beggars belief that, at precisely this point, Keir Starmer and Wes Streeting think that the thing to do is to ride to Johnson’s rescue on Covid.

Streeting – in an article on Labour List – put forward “Labour’s Plan to live well with Covid”. Yes. he really did write that. A real contender for the backdrop for Party Conference, or billboards at the next election. Possibly more memorable than Starmer’s latest “This, That and The other”. The irony of this is that Streeting is putting this forward as part of a plan to show that Labour aims to win the next election on its own merits, not simply be the lucky beneficiary of the Tories falling apart. Clearly, the statesmanlike thing is to show how fit we are for government by being as much like them as possible.

At the same time Starmer’s speech to the Fabian Society echoed the government line. “We need to learn to live with Covid. He went on “I don’t want a government ever again to have to place tough restrictions on our lives, our livelihoods and our liberties.” Ever again. From here. Regardless of what happens? Close your eyes and it could be the Covid Recovery Group speaking. Restrictions (which might also be called safeguards) only have to be put in place when the virus is left to run riot). An active Covid suppression policy saves lives and allows economic recovery. Let the virus evolve into a new variant – as it will – and we’ll once again have picked up the card marked “Return to Hospital. Do not pass Go. Do not collect an economic recovery”.

To be fair to Streeting, his proposals actually spell out that constant safeguards (restrictions) are the price of accepting that “the virus is here to stay”. Some of this proposes a sensible wholesale roll out of a serious testing and tracing system, ventilation systems in schools, support for worldwide vaccination, proper sick pay for those having to isolate – which concedes that people will have to – and but also requires a permanent volunteer “jabs army” to relieve pressure on Health Service workers – instead of recruiting workers that will have to be paid (?!). All of this concedes that pressure will be constant from here, as will waves of jabs.

By contrast, a serious position that rejects complicity with the government and sets a course towards active Covid suppression has now been adopted by the Socialist Health Association, and this should be discussed up and down the Party and through the unions too to push a change of course and defy this fatal fatalism.

Coronavirus Pandemic

We note that:

1. The Tory Government’s handling of the Covid-19 pandemic has led to one of the highest per capita death tolls in the world, as well as causing thousands to suffer with long term health problems.

2. Its incompetence, corruption, repeated failure to take timely decisions, reliance on just vaccines and herd immunity, on top of its ideological neo-liberalism mean that it has utterly failed to protect the health and well-being of the people of the UK.

3. In October 2021, Parliament’s Health & Social Care and Science & Technology Committees’ joint report on the lessons learnt from the UK’s handling of the coronavirus pandemic described it as one of “the most important public health failures the United Kingdom has ever experienced”; and the Public Accounts Committee report on the government’s flagship test-and-trace system said that it had failed to achieve “its main objective” to cut infection levels and help Britain return to normal despite beinghanded an “eye-watering” £37bn in taxpayers’ cash.

4. The Government continues to delay its promised independent public enquiry.

We recognise that:

1. Vaccination, while essential, can be only one tool in the struggle to control Covid-19.

2. Those countries which have aimed at maximum suppression of the virus have the lowest death tolls and are suffering the least negative economic consequences.

3. There is no reliable evidence that it is possible to live safely with this virus as it mutates, and more dangerous variants emerge.

We call on the SHA and Labour Party at all levels to:

1. Reject the Tories’ ‘living with the virus’ approach, and instead support a comprehensive strategy to keep community transmission of the virus as close to zero as possible and ultimately to eliminate it entirely from particular geographic areas, based on tried and tested public health principles, including: An effective public sector local and fully-funded Find, Test, Trace, Isolate and Support (FFTIS) operation run by the NHS and local authorities, providing comprehensive financial, psychological, social and health care support and practical assistance to all required to self-isolate or shield. Continuing personal protection and mitigation measures including social distancing, handwashing, mask-wearing and good ventilation. An obligation for workplaces, educational places, hospitality, venues and other indoor public spaces to adhere to and publicly display Covid protection standards (especially for ventilation).Vaccine passes where appropriate. The right to work and study from home where possible and no requirement to attend the workplace unless strictly necessary.

2. Actively support campaigns and international efforts to tackle the pandemic on a global level through facilitating speedy vaccine deployment and production in all parts of the world In order to effectively campaign for this essential life-saving elimination strategy, we resolve to support Independent SAGE, to affiliate to the Zero Covid UK campaign, and to work with those campaigns.

Full English Brexit

In the ironically named “Planet Normal” Daily Telegraph podcast, truculent rosbif Lord Frost – AKA “Frosty the no man” – spells out the way ahead for the go for broke Tory right.

He has two main points.

Lockdown was a bad idea.

In that breathtaking way that Tories have of stating the exact opposite of the facts with breezy self confidence, he says that when the pandemic is viewed in hindsight, the UK has “come out relatively positively” but that the country will look back on lockdowns as a “serious public policy mistake”.

“Relatively positively”? Compared with who I wonder? With a death rate of 2,257 per million (and rising) the UK is 25th worst out of 207 countries. We have done better than 24. Worse than 182.

So, relatively positive compared with the USA (2,567 per million) or Poland (2,670 per million) Croatia (3,197) or Peru (6,248); but really grim compared with Ireland (1,221) or Kazakhstan (987) or Cuba (735) or Vietnam (364); let alone Japan (145) or South Korea (121) or Australia (101) or New Zealand (11) or China (<4).

The only comparable West European countries that have done worse are Belgium and Italy.

The countries that have done worst are mostly in Eastern Europe or Latin America; often countries that had a denialist leadership for at least part of the pandemic – like the USA or Brazil. The countries that have done best are those that have followed an active Covid suppression policy throughout the pandemic, like China, or for most of it, like New Zealand or Australia; or large numbers of countries in the Global South in which the average life expectancy does not reach the elderly age groups most at risk of death.

Please note the difference in scales between this graph and the European one. The Japan block here is far fewer people (151) than the Norway block above (258).

To get into a reductio ad absurdum with the country that has done best, for every 1 person who has died of Covid in China, 650 have died in the UK. Quite an achievement.

Perhaps he is less concerned with deaths – which disproportionately affect people who are old, or poor, or live in overcrowded conditions, work in front line jobs or are ethnic minority – than with “the economy”. As he says, “There haven’t been enough voices challenging the epidemiologists. There hasn’t been enough of a voice of the economy in this, [or] an attempt to get to grips with the trade-offs.” So, there we have it. On the one hand we have mass deaths. On the other, money to be made. As the Deputy Business correspondent of the Daily Telegraph put it at the start of the pandemic, a viral cull of the economically inactive elderly – sitting in care homes costing a fortune – would be “mildly beneficial”. Not something to lose any sleep about. With 175,000 excess deaths since March 2020, that’s that box ticked.

Had there been no lockdown early on, far more people would have died. The most recent waves have been blunted by mass vaccination. Vaccination did not start until December 2020. The only way to stop the first wave was to lock down hard. It worked. Even though it came late and reluctantly – with many Tories wanting to “take it on the chin”; in the hope that if enough infections ripped through the population quickly enough, the survivors would be immune by the Summer, we could bury our dead and move on. But a collapsed Health Service in the meantime would have scuppered their government, so they couldn’t risk it.

By May, cases were low enough that another couple of weeks could have had them in the sort of territory that would have required an effective test, trace and isolate system to keep them under control. Instead the government opened up too quickly. Resistance to school reopening from the teaching unions helped slow down the inevitable viral rebound, which took off apace from the start of the autumn term. The influence of people like Lord Frost in the Conservative Party stopped the government taking the necessary action before it was too late to stop another wave of mass infections, hospitalisations and deaths last winter.

So, unless Frost is rewriting History, or has a serious case of amnesia, it is quite clear that without the lockdowns in 2020 we’d have had an awful lot more dead people. Obviously “a serious policy mistake.”

He is also against what he calls “Covid theatre” – like masks – possibly because, as well as helping stop infections spreading, they are a visible sign of both the seriousness of the virus and an act of conspicuous social solidarity that shows there is such a thing as society (and that will never do).

‘Don’t rush on net zero’

As if that’s what they’re doing! Because there’s really no hurry is there?

He says, “I think climate change is a significant problem. I just don’t think it’s necessarily the most significant problem that the country faces at the moment.”  By the time it is, it will be too late. This is like the Veneto Regional Council voting against climate control measures minutes before having to evacuate their council chamber to escape rising flood waters. As for them, so for Lord Frost. Everything will be under control and normal. Until it isn’t. As he says, “I would not run at it. I would pace it a bit, if we must set ourselves this net zero objective.” IF WE MUST…get off our arses and do something, lets not go at the pace needed (7% CO2 reductions on an annual basis) let’s amble along hoping that someone else will take up the slack.

In California and British Columbia this summer, people in small towns like Greenville and Quincy would have seen everything looking normal until minutes before wildfires burned them to the ground. Perhaps Lord Frost didn’t get a look at the news during the Summer to see all those wildfires and floods. Perhaps he hasn’t noticed the melting permafrost and glaciers and the impending sea level rises. Or the droughts. Or the hurricanes and typhoons that are multiplying and moving into more “temperate” zones. Or the mass extinctions. Or the Amazon being on the verge of tipping into savannah. Still, there’s no rush is there and we have to pace ourselves…

What he is against is exactly what’s needed.

  • As fossil fuel bills rise because of rising gas prices, he wants to slow down the transition away from them. An argument that the investment in transition should not be loaded onto consumer’s bills is one thing, arguing to scrap them altogether is another. Neither he, nor anyone in the Net Zero Watch group makes the distinction.
  • He is against state investment in renewable technology (“picking winners”) because, unlike Deng Xiao Peng, he doesn’t care whether the cat catches mice as long as its privately owned. The record of leaving it to the market – when it comes to insulation and retrofitting for example – holds no lessons for him. At the current pace of insulation, 50,000 houses a year – many of them bodged by half trained white van men – we will have finished doing the 26 million homes the UK needs doing to hit net zero by 2050 in 2541. I’m not sure if that’s a leisurely enough pace for Lord Frost, but it doesn’t look like they are breaking much of a sweat to me.

As he puts it, with great precision “We’re bringing in measures that are sort of unnecessary, too soon.” He doesn’t specify what these are, but presumably he’d rather bring them in when its too late.

He is also in favour of using Brexit to go for wholesale deregulation of course.

So – the programme for a proper Tory government, with none of this leveling up pinkwash posturing: Freedom for the virus! Lord make me green but not yet! Take back decontrol!

Dr Strangelove or: How they want us to learn to stop worrying and “live with the virus”.

Conservatives are very keen on war time analogies – “Blitz spirit”, Dunkirk spirit” and all that. But in the war against the virus they are proposing to surrender. This is not their finest hour.

Omicron is still surging. Government figures as of 9/1/22 show cases up 6.6% over the previous week – with over 140,000 cases a day – and hospitalisations up 57.7% – with 2,434 a day.

The 7 day average of deaths is also rising and stood at 182 a day on January 8th. Up from 131 a day on January 1st and continually rising in between. There were 313 deaths on Saturday.

Despite this, the government has announced an end to the need for PCR tests for international travellers and is floating two extraordinarily reckless further measures.

  1. Abandonment of free lateral flow tests
  2. Abandonment of mass vaccinations beyond the third dose.

Dr Clive Dix, the former head of the vaccine task force is arguing that “Mass population-based vaccination in the UK should now end” and – pinch me if you’ve heard this one before – that we should treat Covid “like flu”. Vaccinations should be restricted to the most vulnerable. So far, so Great Barrington. Deja vu all over again.

The problems with this are obvious.

  1. Covid is not like flu. It is much more lethal and much more transmissable. Allowing it to be “endemic” means accepting significant levels of deaths on a permanent basis.
  2. There is no “long flu”.
  3. Not being able to test will keep the figures down – in a rather Trumpian way – but not reduce the actual infections, simply abandon any attempt to keep track of it. Wealthy people who can afford it will, no doubt, buy tests. The people in low paid jobs who are least able to work from home, the front line workers, people who live in overcrowded conditions, in fact the people most likely to catch it and die from it – will not be able to.
  4. Omicron is not the last variant that will evolve, if it is left to do so.
  5. Vaccine immunity wears off. As does immunity from having had a previous variant. Omicron is already infecting people who are triple jabbed. Keir Starmer is a case in point. If he had a badge for every variant he has contracted, he would have an armful.
  6. Having no further vaccines, when vaccines are the primary line of defence being set by the government, means abandoning the line of defence.
  7. The Health Service is already under massive pressure with one in ten workers off work around New Year, more than 20 hospitals declaring critical incidents and 27,000 resignations between July and September last year alone.

Put simply, this approach means that we – and the NHS -are being thrown to the wolves by the sort of eugenicists who thought at the beginning of the pandemic that culling the elderly and vulnerable would be a stimulant to the economy (and no doubt still do).

Now the UK has had 150,000 deaths from this virus, this is no time to abandon the struggle against it. An active virus suppression strategy in China kept Covid deaths there to just two (TWO!!!) last year. Of course, if you listen to the BBC – or worse – this is clear evidence that the Chinese are mad; which makes you wonder just how sane we think we are.

This should be called out and firmly opposed by Labour and the trade unions. We need to be fighting for a zero Covid strategy.

Nadhim Zahawi loses the plot.

The Open Letter to Schools by Education Minister Nadhim Zahawi for the start of term is based on a presumption that the Omicron variant will cause mass infections and, rather than seek to avoid this, the government wants schools to adapt to it.

This is the logical consequence of putting business first; which requires a defeatist approach to suppressing the virus. If the imperative is not to suppress the virus but simply to have the maximum number of students in school so that their parents can go to work and relieve some of the pressure on businesses, health and educational considerations take a back seat.

Zahawi concedes that the situation is going to be bad. Lots of students and members of staff will contract the virus. “Public sector leaders have been asked to prepare for a worst-case scenario of up to a quarter of staff off work as the virus continues to sweep across the country” TES. This is the “take it on the chin” approach with avengeance. Provision of online or blended learning during the coming half term is not a measure to be taken to avoid mass infection, but a fall back position required by the failure to do so.

His last minute suggestions to deal with large scale staff absence have a whiff of barely thought out panic about them, combined with some attempts not to let a good crisis go to waste.

  • appeals to “former teachers” to return to the classroom; to be organised school by school. There is nothing proposed from the DFE to encourage this, or facilitate it, giving a strong sense of “over to you” about it. If this is to be taken seriously, some thought needs to go into who “former teachers” are – and why they are “former”. Most of them will be found among the third of teachers who quit within five years of qualification; so, addressing the issues which lead to this exodus will be needed if they are to be encouraged back in any numbers. Most of this group will be younger people who will have moved on to other jobs. Relatively few of them will be willing to quit a new career without some sign that the conditions that lead them to leave in the first place are being addressed. A comment often heard from recently departed or retired colleagues is along the lines of, “I don’t know how you can put up with it. Its only after you leave that you realise how much stress you’ve been under”. A serious discussion with the teaching unions about how the unbearable pressures on teachers – at the best of times – could be relieved would be an essential precondition for this to have even a marginal effect. There are also quite a lot of retired teachers. However, most of them are in relatively vulnerable age groups. Probably not wise to put a lot of exhausted rising seventies in Covid crisis classrooms; particularly given some of the other suggestions that Zahawi has sucked out of his thumb; which will determine what those classrooms are like.
  • Flexible delivery of onsite learning – with the priority being to keep the kids on site – covers a multitude of sins. “Flexible delivery involves utilising all your available teaching and non-teaching workforce to maximise on-site education for as many pupils as possible while you flexibly deliver provision either on-site or remotely to some pupils.” Nadhim Zahawi cited in the TES (my emphasis). Using “teaching and non teaching staff” means covering lessons by non teachers. While Higher Level TAs now often cover lessons in some schools in certain conditions, this seems to be a much broader proposal; that anyone who can be propped up in front of a class is fair game to keep the appearance of on site education going. The educational fabric looks set to be stretched very thin.
  • The other suggestion is “merging classes”. This is beyond parody. Instead of having 30 students in a room, you put 60 of them in there. With a Covid variant that is as infectious as measles. Quite brilliant!
  • Exams and OFSTED inspections are expected to go ahead as normal. OFSTED inspections for Secondary schools will be held back for the first week in January, but only to facilitate on site pupil Covid testing. Other than that, OFSTED Inspectors who “who are also school, college and early years leaders” will not be expected to take part in inspections – making the inspectors that do even less in touch with practice and experience on the ground. Schools affected by significant absence can “ask for” Inspections to be “deferred”.
  • Students and staff are “encouraged” to self test twice a week and the DFE “recommend” that face masks should be worn in Secondary classrooms as well as communal areas while students over the age of 12 are “eligible” for vaccination. None of this is a requirement. This lackadaisical libertarianism is described as a “proportionate and targeted” approach. Largely thanks to anti-vaxx influence in the Conservative Party, there is no current proposal to vaccinate 5-12 year olds, even though evidence from South Africa shows that Omicron has a greater impact on younger children that previous developments and vaccinations of this age group are now taking place in the USA and the EU. largely due to anti-vaxx influence in the Conservative Party.
  • 7,000 ventilation units are to be deployed, with no timescale set out. With 24,400 schools in England, that’s one between every three and a half schools. Presumably they are expected to share.

This half term looks set to be as big a mess as any in this pandemic, especially in schools. Zarhawi’s letter describes what “living with the virus” is going to look like. Not just this half term, but forever.

Instead of a determined policy to suppress the virus, with the sort of whole society mobilisation that eliminated domestic infections in China in two months in 2020, we have half hearted safety gestures (described as “proportionate” when “inadequate” would be more accurate) – apologetically introduced and slated to be removed as soon as possible as an affront to personal liberties – used as a cover for a level of social mixing likely to send infections soaring, with massive numbers of staff off sick – and doubled up classes covered by anyone on the payroll who can be got to cover them; giving the infection rate an added top spin.

The Education Unions will in the first instance need some quickly published agreed guidelines to stop this becoming abusive, but we also need to campaign explicitly for an active Covid suppression policy, aiming to eliminate domestic infections as the only way forward that will actually be a way out.

Update 4/1/22:

Joint union safety guidelines have now been published by NEU NASUWT UNISON UNITE and GMB and can be read here.

The NEU press release on the government statement can be read here.

Baby, its COVID outside.

The latest figures on UK cases, hospitalisations and deaths- released for 1 January – make sobering reading for all of us; but appear not to be giving pause to the Secretary of State for Health, who is doubling down on arguing that we have to “live with” the virus (forever) and the select breed of scientists in his camp, who argue that Omicron is a step towards COVID evolving into a “mostly harmless” “endemic” infection like the common cold.

The figures are stark – and do not support either that hypothesis or the government’s policies. The Omicron variant is now considered as infectious as measles, and it is capable of infecting people who have been vaccinated or who have contracted it before. And “endemic” does not mean “harmless”.

In the week up to 1 January there were an average of 162,000 verified new cases every day for England alone. This was a 47.9% increase on the previous week and is rising sharply.

Hospitalisations similarly rose by 49.9%, with an average of 1,915 new admissions a day, again on a sharply rising curve.

Deaths, a lagging indicator, were up by 31.1%, with an average of 151 people dying every day – again on a rising curve.

It is important to bear in mind that these new cases, which have baked in a following wave of hospitalisations and deaths, were picked up during the Xmas week after a significant additional wave of people getting their third vaccination.

  • Relatively few people have been at work.
  • No schools or colleges are open.
  • Relatively few journeys will have been taken on public transport.
  • There has also been an 8% decline in the number of tests that have been carried out during this week – largely due to shortages of kit.

Projecting forward we can sketch out the likely impact in two weeks time. If 2% of identified cases end up in hospital, we’ll be looking at 3,251 daily admissions in England by mid January, just from the cases already identified (2% of 162,000).

With a sharp increase in social interactions coming from a large scale return to work from Tuesday, and schools beginning to reopen, with no further safeguards put in place, we should expect the upward spike to jag even more sharply upwards.

On 31 December there were 154 deaths and 1,915 admissions, giving a deaths to admission ratio of 1:12. Extrapolating this to the 3,251 admissions expected by mid January gives a death rate of around 270 a day (or 1,890 a week); and rising.

There is an expectation that this wave will decline again once it has infected all the people that it can. But, as it seems able to infect vaccinated people, and people who have recovered from previous variants, it has a very large pool of potential victims.

By February we will know if this wave has receded, and to what extent, or if it keeps on going.

Allowing a virus like this to become endemic and not stamping it out is a catastrophic strategic choice that means that, so far, the UK has suffered 30 times the number of deaths as Zero Covid China in absolute terms, and 629 times as many people per capita – and will suffer many more, with no prospect of an end to it.

The argument a week ago was that Ministers wanted “more evidence” before taking further safety precautions. The evidence seems to be in. How much more do they need?

Stupid COVID Headlines Deconstructed. 1

The Daily Mail 21/12/21


Strapline: Ministers defy gloomy scientists by refusing to level new curbs without concrete evidence to justify them.

This is a humdinger! “REJOICE!” – with its echoes of Margaret Thatcher’s triumphalism after the Falklands War merging with the overall theme that Xmas is supposed to be a time for Christians to rejoice about the birth of Christ (cue Hallelujah chorus) and everyone else to get happy by eating, drinking and consuming too much – leads on to the downright paradoxical “Xmas is looking safe” (my emphasis). “Safe” of course, has two meanings here. “Safe” as in – going ahead with no restrictions. And “safe” as in, well, actually safe in a medical sense. The implication that the latter is the case is sneaked in on the coat tails of good feelings about the former; even though it so obviously isn’t (and polls show that most people don’t think it is either).

In case anyone is any doubt, the message is hammered home in the strapline.

This is also a classic of its sort.

“Ministers defy gloomy scientists”. How brave of them! Its not as if they have the power in this situation. The “scientists” being described as “gloomy” here are the official SAGE committee. “Gloomy” is a way of dismissing a unanimous view from a body of scientists charged with giving advice to keep us all safe, as though that advice is the result of a killjoy frame of mind rather than a sober assessment of the risks and what we need to do to keep a grip on them. Chris Whitty as the Grinch? Because, who wants to be sober at Xmas? Throughout the pandemic, the official SAGE has tended to be rather cautious in its recommendations – but have several times proposed quicker, sharper, more comprehensive action to stop the spread of the virus than the government has been prepared to take. The government has “defied” this advice every time and dithered along for a few more weeks whistling in the wind with its fingers firmly crossed hoping that the inevitable won’t happen. Then they have u-turned because it has.

This is the concrete content of the Mail’s call for “concrete evidence to justify” the measures that will be required. It takes a willful disregard for the entire experience of this pandemic to presume that this evidence won’t turn up in increased cases, hospitalisations and deaths over the next month. The Mail, as with so many other things, gets the relationship exactly the wrong way round. “Concrete evidence”, in the form of deaths, is exactly what we need to take the measures to avoid.

The paradox of all this is that people are for the most part more cautious than the government, queuing round the block for booster jabs and cancelling meals out and social occasions, digging their masks out and putting them on. The result of this socially responsible caution will be to slow down the rate that the virus spreads. The Mail will doubtless claim in a week or so that the effect of this is some sort of natural feature of Omicron, which made the caution redundant, while cheering on the people going out and spending in hospitality and putting everyone else at risk.

Of course, on the same front page, they had an inset box with a large picture of the Queen smiling in festive red – giving the impression she is happy with their main headline – but, with a slight self consciousness about the dissonance involved – accompanied by the sub headline “As the Queen cancels her Sandringham Festivities, Richard Kay reveals what it all means” which indicates that the 95 year old head of state is actually listening to the “gloomy scientists” and voting with her feet like so many of the rest of us are. God saves those that save themselves?