Omicronic Christmas

Just outside Sainsbury’s a mask lies on the paving stones like a delicate blue lifeboat on a hard, flat sea.

The food bank boxes by the entrance are fuller that usual, and people have donated bottles of wine.

The elderly man who regularly begs outside Aldi sits holding a piece of bread, entranced by the pigeon that perches on his knee to peck it. The bird flies off as someone puts money in his cup. The old man looks up, nods, and touches his heart.

A teenage boy in an immaculate white kaftan just out of Islamic Saturday school zips along the pavement on an electric scooter.

Distracted and tired, I drop a saucepan of baked beans in the kitchen. Baked Bean shrapnel explodes everywhere. Over the floor. Up the fridge, Up the wall and blinds as far as the ceiling. All those CSI stories about “bloodsplatter patterns” come to mind. This morning I discover bean juice splatter on the windows that had got through the blinds. Forceful.

Reading a book about murder in Ancient Rome – A Fatal thing happened on the way to the Forum by Emma Southon. The author stresses that murder of slaves in Ancient Rome was not considered murder, but damage to property; and it occurs to me that the public school products that currently run our government, and most institutions in this country, received the benefit of a classical education. Which explains a lot.

At the bottom of Buck Lane, a family traipses home after Xmas shopping; Mum and two boys. The smaller boy is dragging along a black rubbish bag filled with supposed goodies with a very disgruntled air. It bumps along the pavement. A lot of the kids I see out and about look angry at the moment. Sometimes too much is too much.

An Ad by the side of the road appeals to people “Don’t be alone in the festive period” which is a haunting warning.

The horribly thin Santa that hangs from the side of one of the houses on Kingsbury Road is back. He looks more than ever like a prisoner hanging in a dungeon in a festive suit. Last year, he was left hanging there until March as a forgotten and forlorn reminder of Christmas just past.

In the flats opposite – Mountaire Court, Ernest Trownbridge’s last hurrah, all tall, late medieval, Tudor fantasy in apartment form – a couple of windows sport Christmas lights. One has soothing dark pastel greens, blues and reds that twinkle slowly and gently like a massage for the eyes and brain. The other rapidly flashes yellow in an intense alarm signal staccato that can only be described as a visual klaxon; and makes me seriously grateful not to have epilepsy.

At the end of Handel’s Messiah on Radio 3, I usually well up during the last bars of the Amen chorus -as the soaring fugue gets too much for my nerve endings to cope with. But this time it was the announcer that got to me. She talked about the audience standing and applauding, so grateful for this communal experience that they had missed for so long, and stating in a defiant sort of way that the choir was going to carry out a full programme of concerts over the Xmas period. That was last Tuesday. And now, the lights are going out in concert halls all over the world, and it won’t all be over by Christmas. Weeping felt like appropriate.

An argument with Auntie over Zero Covid.

This one will run and run. A second reply that dodges the question of why they just don’t deal with why the per capita death rate here is so awful compared with China and why they instead put the whole issue in the framework of an inevitable drift into living with (and dying from) the virus forever.

My complaint to the BBC on 26 October

A small outbreak of COVID in China was used by your presenter and guest as an opportunity to sneer at China’s Zero Covid policy and to simply assume (not argue) that “Covid is here to stay”. As the application of this policy has kept deaths in China below 5,000 – and, had they applied the same approach as that of the USA they’d have lost 2.7 million people and, had they been as lackadaisical, callous and incompetent as our government it would have been worse – you’d think that they’d be entitled to a bit more respect and – perhaps – we might have something to learn from them if we are not to be in this mess forever.

Their reply

Thank you for contacting us regarding The World Tonight, broadcast 25 October on BBC Radio 4.

Having reviewed the broadcast, Ritula Shah was speaking to Dr Yanzhong Huang, senior fellow for global health at the Council on Foreign Relations, after raised concerns over China’s ability to maintain its zero-tolerance approach to the virus, due to a recent surge in infections causing the postponement of the Beijing Marathon.

During the interview she asked Dr Huang about how China would be able to keep up with this approach coming up to the 2022 Beijing Olympics and whether there, “is there any kind of internal discussion going on about the possibility of accepting that covid is here to stay, and lifting restrictions in the way that Australia and New Zealand have began to do?”

In the case of some interviews it is often understood by audiences that the interviewer will play “devil’s advocate” in order to pursue a line of enquiry with an interviewee.

It is important to recognise that a fundamental part of Ritula’s role is to offer analysis, using her experience and knowledge, but this is not indicative of bias.

Please be assured that BBC journalists seek out information and strive to present it accurately, clearly and objectively, we would never intend to mislead our audience, but we appreciate that you feel that we got it wrong on this occasion.

We do value your feedback about this. All complaints are sent to senior management and we’ve included your points in our overnight report. These reports are among the most widely read sources of feedback in the company and ensures that your concerns have been seen by the right people quickly. This helps inform their decisions about current and future content.

My reply to them

Thank you for your reply, which I take to be written in a spirit of post modern irony. An argument as a Devil’s Advocate is usually introduced when there is a cosy unquestioned consensus that is sorely in need of a challenge. In the interview, the dominant narrative in the West that COVID is here to stay and we just have to live (and die) with it was taken as read by both interviewer and interviewee. In fact Dr Huang expressed some incredulity that China insists on hospitalising “even mild cases”. Because, as we know, no one with a mild case has never known to infect anyone else with a severe or lethal case. It is this somnambulist and perverse presumption that constitutes the bias. May I suggest that Ritula, or one of your other presenters, tries out the following question on the next Minister who appears trotting out this complacent fatalism. “You say we have to live with the virus. The Chinese have a different approach and have kept deaths down below 5,000. We are currently losing that many every five weeks. Why have we got it so wrong?” This could be done sincerely, or as a Devil’s Advocate, or just in the Laurentian spirit of kicking over the apple cart to see which way the apples roll.

Their reply to me.

We reviewed this again and are confident that Ritula asked the questions most likely in the mind of the listener, and relevent to the context of the Winter Olympics.

Given the rise in cases and China’s zero tolerance policy – which had led to the postponement of the Bejjng marathon – the point was made as to if this tough stance could be maintained when there will be an influx of athletes from all over the world for the 2022 Winter Olympics in a few month’s time.

The exact quote you reference wasn’t so much an assumption but a question, “Is there any kind of internal discussion going on about the possibility of accepting Covid is here to stay, and lifting restrictions in the way that Australia and New Zealand have begun to do?”

It was reasonable to explore China’s zero tolerance approach and whether there would be movement on it – such as we’ve seen in other countries with a zero tolerance approach – so that the Games go ahead.

My reply to them (20 December).

The question that Ritala asked contained the assumption that we should all be bothered about – that China’s “tough stance” on covid might be unsustainable and that the sensible thing should surely be to relax it. That was also transmitted in the tone of the question and discussion, which exuded a sense of wonder that the Chinese should be so stubborn as to prioritise public health over business as usual. That is very much the Western paradigm and is now coming back to bite us with Omicron – and who knows what will come next if we don’t emulate what China has done and go for active suppression.

While it may be legitimate to question any policy anywhere, I have heard no comparable grilling of Western politicians as to why our death rates are so bloody awful compared with China’s. The way you frame your questions and reports has a lot to do with how listeners are nudged to think.

Just to update you on the stats.

If China had had a per million death rate comparable to the USA, they’d have lost over 3.3 million people (instead of 4,800).

Had the UK had as successful a covid suppression strategy as China, and had a comparable per million death rate (3.47 per million) we’d have lost just 226 people in the whole pandemic (and be pretty much opened up by now).

Do the maths yourself if you like. 3.47 X 65. Startling isn’t it?

Why isn’t this being put to the insouciant, lackadaisical, amateurish buffoons who are in charge? THAT is the question I’d like answered.

Thank you.

Intimations of Mortality

We seem to have a new sort of spider web this year. A sort of formless gauzy mist that drifts across corners and appears overnight. No tightly defined geometric structures. As though the spiders know that God is dead and isn’t checking on the quality of their work.

After the brains, two slugs the size of battlecrusiers ooze inexorably from one hedgerow on the path outside our flat to the happier hunting grounds under the other.

We have a strange intrusive ticking, that sounds both mechanical and urgent, coming from inaccessible places in our water pipes at times. It feels like a countdown.

The intense playful and urgent quality of the playing in this year’s Proms exudes a sense that live music cannot be taken for granted forever; that each performance is precious and has to be fully savoured. Live music in more ways than one.

The government has decided to “live with” the virus. Which means that they are content that people should continue to die from it. Forever and ever. Amen.

Traffic, thank you hats and Mussolini on a lamp post.

At the bottom of Buck Lane, as the steep slope inclines ever steeper, one of the many motoring dickheads who express their social distancing frustrations by driving too fast and revving their engines, making a lot of noise and not caring who hears it, explodes up the hill in a cacophony of straining motor without a backward look, leaving a dense blueish cloud of exhaust behind for a heavily built and wheezing mother to laboriously wheel her heavily laden push chair through. The small child in front in the seat sits bolt upright and looks offended; as well he might.

Down by the shops, the traffic has built up in recent weeks, and a driver honks his horn in frustration at the car in front, which has stopped, waiting for another driver to vacate a parking space and causing an instant tail back. The horn, meant to be used in emergencies not as a sign of minor irritation, is loud and nerve jangling, obliterating all other sounds while it blasts and putting everyone else almost as on edge as the driver. Sharing is caring. A hefty sort of guy walking in front of me stares across at the driver, whose window is open, makes eye contact and calls “calm down”. In doing that, he is speaking for many of us, but gets the inevitable reaction of someone who is already angry and has just made a status gesture in front of his family – all gathered around and overheated in his car – and can’t afford to take a rebuke without losing face; so he escalates, leans out of his window all red faced and shouts back, honking his horn again. This is repeated ritualistically – and slightly comically now we are used to it -as the traffic queue slowly edges forward again, roughly at walking pace; so the argument keeps pace all the way down to the station.

In some ways I’m sorry for drivers. On the way down to the shops I get to walk through the Park. Nothing like walking to get your thoughts in order. And this time of year we have the wildflowers that the council has put in to encourage the bees. Right now there is an exhilarating flash of scarlet poppies. Its like an Impressionist painting but better, because its what would have inspired an impressionist painting. Manet live. Or, like stodgy old Wordsworth, your heart can’t help but “leap up”. People driving past miss all that. How much do you lose with the freedom of the not so open road? Invest in a shopping trolley and you get a walk in the Park, time to think and a bit of exercise too.

In the deep shade of a spreading Oak tree, the Roe Green Park Moot is meeting. A dozen or so elderly Gujerati guys – who now seem to be in permanent session -sitting in a circle, several on little camp stools brought for the occasion, two propping up black iron bicycles like props from a Satyajit Ray film, several of them talking at once and waving their hands. Further on, the open air exercise class is back. Mostly legs in the air like they are practicing for the synchronised swimming at the Olympics.

A little bit of implied violence from the sort of people who think that a high level of COVID infections is the same thing as being “free”. All the council posters urging people to have vaccines and take care have had pots of paint thrown at them.

By contrast, down in Grays at the weekend, someone has crocheted a thank you hat for the NHS to put on top of the post box outside the library.

As the NHS comes under pressure from the rise in cases, it is perhaps appropriate that some of these figures show they have been pushed a bit beyond their limits.

On the way up Cromwell road, just opposite Mumford and Sons (the former fish and chip shop and Covid victim now being gutted, windows black and gaping like a corpse whose eyes have been eaten by crows) two youths walking past me. The smaller, meaner looking one tweaks the chest of the taller – who looks a bit like a browner version of Sideshow Bob – saying “I’ll flick your nipples if you keep chatting shit”. On the way back down in search of chips – having developed a habit of smiling at passers by during the pandemic as a sort of mutual affirmation (we’re still here then) – I pass a couple sweating their way up the hill and smile at them. A few steps on and behind my back I hear the bloke mutter “Fucking smiling! Ooo’s e fink he’s fucking smiling at?” and I realise that I’d almost forgotten that old reflex of keeping safe by keeping neutral. Like the safety advice on the New York Subway. “Avoid eye contact with anyone over three years old”. The motto of every Council in South Essex should probably be Qui tibi vultus (oo, you lookin at?)

One of the butchers in Orsett Road is now Halal and offers “real goat”. Makes you wonder what the unreal goat is and who sells it.

When I hang out my laundry on the whirly drier in the backyard, the sight of my trousers hanging upside down to dry is reminiscent of Mussolini suspended from that lamp post by the Partisans after they shot him in Mezzagra in 1945.

Out of the window

  • a young guy on an electric scooter swishes past; like the ghost of a future that we might already be too late to build. You can’t help noting that the police in London have confiscated 500 of these in the last couple of months – pending the Highway Code updating itself to cope with them – while the gas guzzlers that poison our air and are helping overheat our planet rev happily along with complete impunity.
  • a sound of hooves and a glass carriage pulled by two horses with huge pink plumes driven by men in top hats and full of tiny Asian girls in fluffy pink dresses appropriate for princesses but looking a bit bored and apprehensive trots by up past the castle flats; their parents driving behind in a nervous convoy, leaning forward over their steering wheels.

Impact of School Reopening on Viral Infection Rates. Week 1.

The wholesale reopening of schools on March 8th has already had an impact on the rate of viral transmission.

The National Education Union has a site that measures the rate of infection per 100,000 people in the areas around every school in the country. I have looked at the figures for the areas around three Primary schools with which I have a personal connection – the one I went to, one I taught in, and the one my children went to. I will be updating these on a weekly basis, every Thursday.

The impact of schools reopening can be seen clearly. No other significant measures have been taken to ease lockdown at this point, so this passes the “fair test” criteria for identifying the impact of a single variable (1).

You can check out what is happening in schools near you by going on the NEU covid map site. I would be surprised if the pattern were any different anywhere else.

In Islington, the infection rate is still declining, but the rate of decline is leveling off.

In Brent, the rate of infection has leveled off almost completely, from a previously sharp decline.

In Thurrock, there has been a very small increase, from a rate of decline that was previously similar to Brent’s.

This is quite a disturbing immediate impact. My presumption is that, other things being equal, these trends will continue between now and the Easter break.

The tragedy of this is that keeping schools shut until after the easter break could have got infections down to a point at which and effective Teast and Trace system would have been in a position to eliminate domestic infections.

  1. Level 3 in Key Stage 2 Science.

Schools + Big Bang = Bad Move!

By late Monday afternoon we will know just how lucky Boris Johnson feels.

We will also know whether Chief Medical Officer Chris Whitty – reported to be deeply concerned about a rush to open schools wholesale on March 8th – is going to play the role of a Fauci, by refusing to be window dressing for a move he knows will cost lives, or that of a Birx, grimacing through whatever “form of words” Downing Street comes up with to massage its intent.

The government – not for the first time – is sending contradictory signals. The Education Unions, all of them, are not. They describe the prospect of schools being open to all students from March 8th as “reckless”. (1)

While the government is saying that it will only publish the Scientific advice after the event – an indication that they are not at all sure that it supports a big bang – what we do know appears not to.

As a result of the lockdown, infections are coming down quite fast. Halving every 15 days. With the infections on 18 Feb running at just over 12,000 – other things being equal – they would still be at just under 6,000 a day on March 8th; well above where they were in September last year the last time this was tried (1,295 on September 1st). And we should all recall what happened then. This time round, we are looking at a daily infection rate five times worse than then with a virus that is considered up to 70% more contagious.

Not likely to go better than September is it?

At the current rate of decline, the projection is that infection rates would take until the Easter holidays to be down to 1000 a day. Add the two weeks off for Easter with all other restrictions in place and we could be down to 250 a day by mid April. That is a level at which the virus could be hounded to domestic extinction with a proper test and trade system, run through the Health Service and Local Authorities not SERCO.

The government, instead, wants to rely on vaccines and a lot of hope – and probably some contradictory forms of words as the big bang blows up in our faces. Caution with freedom. Recklessness with responsibility. What more can you expect from us? The buck stops with you. If they do go for this, it will be seen as a green light by the take it on the chin brigade, who want the economy re-opened regardless of the casualties. In the words of Thurrock MP Jackie Doyle Price “The moment you open schools up then there no excuse for not opening up the rest of the economy”.

While there has been a real but marginal impact of vaccinations on infections among the over 80s, this has no bearing at all on schools. No children will be vaccinated. No vaccine has been licensed for the under 16s. Very few teachers or TAs will have had even one injection. At the moment, the age groups which has had the slowest trajectory of decline in infections are young adults (18-24) and primary school age children (5-12). “Researchers say that this may be because a significant proportion of primary pupils have still been in classrooms during lockdown”. (2) The current level of attendance in Primary is around 20-25%. Bump this back up to the pre pandemic norm of 95% and how hard is it to predict whats going to happen?

The impact of a partial reopening – on the lines being tried in Scotland from Monday – is likely to be damaging enough, with primary schools becoming a permanent viral reservoir. Their experience must be watched closely to see what happens, though it must be noted that Scotland has an infection rate that is lower than that in England (1:180 compared to 1:115) and the two weeks between Monday and March 8th is a short period to provide anything definitive about how quickly the virus rebounds. However, opening all schools for all students and all educators is bound to slow down the rate of infection decline significantly and, in the worst case, may even reverse it.

The Education unions, parents, independent SAGE and others are arguing for damage limitation. That if there is to be a partial widening of access to schools from March 8th, this should be on a limited basis and the results studied before considering wholesale reopening. That appears to be the plan in Wales, with Early Years and Infants back next week but a projected fuller opening for the rest of Primary and some Secondary year groups contingent on a continuing improvement in infection reduction. A government concerned with public health would listen to them. Labour should back them – and call for the Zero Covid strategy that is within our grasp, but the Tories fail to sieze

1 https://neu.org.uk/press-releases/joint-statement-wider-opening-schools-england

2 https://www.theguardian.com/education/2021/feb/19/whitty-at-odds-with-johnson-over-big-bang-reopening-of-schools-in-england

March 8th. A “Big Bang” for the Virus.

What a difference a week makes. From March 8th being the earliest possible time to reopen some schools, slowly, slowly, carefully, carefully, it seems to moved through being one of those target dates that become a matter of Ministerial virility to hit, all the way to being a “big bang” day on which all schools open at once. So, eight and a half million students and three quarters of a million educators all going in and out of workplaces every working day with “bubbles” 20 times the size allowed outside, then going home again. Rather a lot of vectors of transmission there. This is like watching a fly trying to get through a window. No matter how many times it bangs its head on the glass, it keeps trying to do the same thing. History repeating itself as tragic farce.

The media – doing their usual job of framing a discussion as though there isn’t one – have gone into overdrive hyping it up in that hopeful way that makes any criticism come across a curmudgeonly, likely to make children unhappy and ruin their lives and – in the case of the Daily Mail – targeting the NEU with a We Reveal Evil Teachers Plotting to Keep Children Safe story; as if demanding safe conditions to teach and learn in were an outrageous abuse by people who don’t know their place. The spirit they would prefer to see being that of the wounded trooper in the 11th Hussars at the end of Tony Richardson’s 1969 film Charge of the Light Brigade, who looks up from the carnage around him as Lord Cardigan rides slowly back up the valley and calls out in a cheery cockney way “Go again Sir?”

The line from the government is that the roll out of the vaccines – a fabulous job by the NHS, thankfully not outsourced to SERCO – will bring the level of infections down to a point that opening up again from March 8th is something they can get away with without overwhelming the Health Service. At the same time they are flying kites with “Great Barrington Declaration” written all over them – arguing that vaccinating the most vulnerable (once) makes it an acceptable risk to go for ” a big wave” of infections among everyone else. Back to “herd immunity”. Here are the problems with this.

If you look at the graph that shows infections in the UK, the pattern is very clear Fig 1.

Fig 1.

During the first lockdown, schools were closed to all but a very few pupils and we were only dealing with the original variant of the virus, which had not yet evolved so that it could spread more quickly. The peak for infections is quite low when you compare it to where we got to over the winter. The point at which infections began to rise again was as soon as the lockdown was lifted in mid summer. This was initially not very apparent because the numbers were low, and its slow growth helped by schools being shut for the summer holidays (despite “Eat out to help out”). Then we had September. Schools reopening evidently had a significant effect on transmission of the virus. Look at the date. Look at the rising curve. The failure to circuit break when absolute numbers were still low enough, then the half hearted lockdown in November followed by the attempt to open up for Xmas shopping can be tracked exactly on this graph. As can the rapid drop resulting from the current lockdown.

It is possible to argue – so people do it – that the rise in infections is down to an increased level of testing, but this is only true in what might be called a limited and specific way. The pattern of deaths follows the same curves; the slowdowns during lockdowns and the increases when they open up. Fig 2. the minimal downturn in November can partly be attributed to the government’s mulish insistence on keeping schools open. The current, much sharper, downturn is at least partly because schools are currently running with between 20-25% of students in. It would be sharper still if those numbers were down to the 3-10% that was the case in the Spring.

Fig 2

The notion that the sharp fall is attributable to the vaccine roll out is not based on facts. The government and media can be a bit allergic to these if they are inconvenient, but the ONS data on infection by age group shows that the rate of infection has dropped most sharply among the school age cohorts and barely at all among the over 70s; who are the age group that have primarily received their first jab. See the graphs here. https://twitter.com/chrisgiles_/status/1360219174476406788?s=27

So, the contribution of vaccinations to reducing infections has so far been marginal at best. Further, at the current rate of 2.5 million vaccinations a week, it will take until summer to give everyone over 16 one jab – and this will be even slower because everyone who has already had one will have to have their follow up within 12 weeks. So, a wide and rapid reopening on the hope that the vaccines alone will do the job is on a bit of a wing and a prayer.

It should also be stressed that no vaccine is currently liscenced for use on anyone aged under 16. So, children will have no vaccine protection at all. The call from Labour for all teachers to have one jab this week to provide some protection – ignored by the government (who presumably either think that it can be defeated with “British Pluck” or that teachers should be prepared to pay the final sacrifice in an undaunted way) also misses the point that you need TWO jabs to be fully vaccinated. The vaccines also – while offering significant protection against serious illness and death do not in themselves prevent infection and transmission.

Opening schools up wholesale on March 8th – even with all the safety measures that Heads and educators have struggled to put into place – is therefore another attempt at a triumph of the will over scientific reality (of a similar sort to the way they are trying to bluff their way through on climate breakdown) and will have comparable effects. It is likely to become the beginning of a super spreader event across the whole of society.

This continual in and out, stop and start has given the virus time to evolve. As it has evolved the variants that are more infectious are the ones that will survive best. Some of these, like the South African variant, have also become more deadly and resistant to the vaccines. It stands to reason that as the mass vaccinations are carried through, the only variants that survive will be those that resist them.

The decisive question therefore is why, given that this is common knowledge, the government does not adopt a strategy to eliminate the virus – as advocated by the Zero Covid coalition. Using the vaccines as an aid, but not relying solely on them. A key demand is that raised by the education unions throughout – for full disclosure of the scientific advice from SAGE.

Reading the comments made by the 50 strong Tory backbench – and profoundly misnamed – “Covid Recovery Group”, that although wholesale reopening of schools will make it impossible to keep the R rate below 1 that this is “worth it” – it is possible to conclude that this is just bluff and ignorance. The calls for “the scientists” to be taken out of political decision making – so that MPs like them don’t have to be troubled by awkward facts when they have to strike a posture – echoing the long muscular sporty traditions of the Public Schools so many of them went to, with their deep suspicion of intellectuals (dubiously continental and probably effete) and the boys comics they read when they were growing up – full of evil villains with big, sneaky brains and weedy little bodies. This – however – is simply a matter of style. These are not stupid people. But they are remarkably unconcerned about deaths among the sorts of people most likely to die – ethnic minorities, front line workers, the unproductive elderly, those with “underlying conditions” making them not fully work fit, and the worst off in general, who have made the “poor lifestyle choice” of living in overcrowded accommodation – if their lives are an obstacle to letting the economy rip and profits made. “Herd immunity to protect the economy and if that means some pensioners die, too bad” as Dominic Cummings put it. Daily Telegraph business editor Jeremy Warner put it like this last March. “Not to put too fine a point on it, from an entirely disinterested economic perspective, the COVID-19 might be mildly beneficial in the long term by disproportionately culling (sic) elderly dependents”.

Find out more and join the resistance here.

Vaccines are not a magic bullet. Zero Covid coalition zoom meeting. (https://clicks.eventbrite.com/f/a/ZpkyZfNaozDdfG7GeA_Tlg~~/AAQxAQA~/RgRiCMm8P0RKaHR0cHM6Ly9wcm90ZWN0LWV1Lm1pbWVjYXN0LmNvbS9zLzNrRVRDWEw4RWlOQkRadmM5bVpYaT9kb21haW49dGlueXVybC5jb21XA3NwY0IKYCE8lidgZgTiv1IXcGF1bGF0a2luNTRAaG90bWFpbC5jb21YBAAAAAA~)

London Lockdown Lowdown

The skinny goblin Santa still suspended from his rope off that house in Kingsbury Road is looking increasingly like a hostage waiting in vain for a rescue from being trapped out of season.

One of my neighbours down the hill comes out of her house negotiating a shopping list over her shoulder with an elderly relative, gets to her car and calls to the toddlers strapped in the back seat- in a voice half way between forced jollity and grim determination – “Right. Who wants to go to ASDA?” – as though the tone would make it sound like Disneyland. From the back seats…silence.

Sadly, one of my downstairs neighbours – Mum, Dad, daughter, are moving. All COVID related. The landlords – who are getting on – have left for Ireland to quarantine in a quieter, sparser, greener place and are selling it out from under them. At the end of the first furlough period, both the Mum and the Dad downstairs were made redundant from their managerial roles in a hotel. Luckily, the Dad has found a job deputy managing a store – a rather posh one in Chelsea – and says he is the one member of the management team that hasn’t contracted the virus even though the streets are like a ghost town. This makes both him and his boss very nervous. Unfortunately the Mum has not and has had to claim Universal Credit. That makes them unacceptably precarious renters for far too many landlords; unwilling to accept tenants on benefit or solely dependent on one job in an uncertain environment. They have nevertheless found an unexpectedly affordable flat in Fitzrovia, near Regents Park, as the expected rent has dropped by 40% since last year – a sign of how much the centre of the city is hollowing out. This is part of the zone in the West End that is dead at the best of times, as so many houses and flats are owned as investments by absentee, often oversea, landlords and often not even rented out; so there are empty, lifeless streets lined with dark flats, and the occasional pedestrian scuttling nervously through the shadows.

All through the night, the foxes scream in the snow.

Labour – follow the science and support Zero Covid.

100,000 now dead. One of the highest totals in the world. Still in the thick of it.

There is a certain sort of Tory who is either in denial about the severity of Coronavirus, or who sees it as an invigorating social Darwinist challenge that will make our society leaner and fitter as part of the bracing new Brexit Britain by killing off the unproductive elderly; or anyone in the workforce with the sort of “underlying conditions” which might require them to claim sick pay from time to time.

Even as the winter wave and new more infectious variants were forcing the government into a far stricter lockdown last week to sustain their bottom line – avoiding a collapse in the Health Service that could prove fatal to them too – a member of the “COVID Recovery Group” of back bench Tory MPs raged in the Evening Standard about Education Secretary. “Gavin Williamson’s saving grace is that he wanted schools to stay open but he was crushed by the Health Department and Cabinet Office. If he had more clout he could have told Health to f*** off.”

Telling Health to “f*** off” indeed.

SAGE told the government before New Year that – with the new infectious variant – it would be impossible to keep the R rate below 1 unless schools were shut. They nevertheless pressed on regardless until slightly beyond the last minute; closing most schools down a day after they had partially reopened. However, unlike in the Spring, they have kept Nurseries open, and initially widened the essential worker list so that more kids could come in. Trying to accelerate even as they were pressing on the brake. The effect was that three or four times as many were in by the end of the first week back; requiring another screeching u turn to get the number down again. With a more infectious virus, and looser restrictions than in the Spring, the trajectory of infections is unlikely to come down rapidly, even if the vaccination programme hits its targets.

This illustrates why Boris Johnson’s Tory government is presiding over a health and economic disaster. Influenced by the sort of libertarian, economy first thinking that sees human life in instrumental terms – and makes a hard nosed calculation that those likely to die are disproportionately not people like them, which allows them to use phrases like “take it on the chin” with a certain devil may care insouciance – they have sought to “balance” economic concerns with health concerns. No such balance is possible. Attempts to reopen the economy before the virus is eliminated can’t fire on all cylinders even before the virus gets back out there and starts spreading wildly again. So we have a sort of macabre hokey cokey approach which prolongs the crisis on all fronts.

Its hard to imagine a Labour government doing half as badly, or being give a tenth as much indulgence – either by the media or the opposition.

Tony Blair – who is advising Matt Hancock – made several comments this week in the Evening Standard which are both revealing and characteristically ignore the fundamentals. He simultaneously drops the bombshell that on current polices it will take “two or three years” to deal with the pandemic – TWO OR THREE YEARS – notes that the UK government has been “behind the curve” every step of the way, then lets Johnson off the hook; arguing that “no government” has done any better. Really? New Zealand, Taiwan, Australia, Vietnam, China? All these countries have had a COVID elimination strategy; and it has worked. All are now fully active societies with recovering economies. Hard to imagine from here right now, but its never too late to do the right – effective – thing.

The charge sheet against Johnson is plain. Failure to

  • lock down early when they knew what was coming,
  • shut off air travel from well heeled business travelers,
  • use the potential for social mobilisation shown in the rapid growth of local mutual self help groups,
  • set up an effective track and trace system; outsourcing it to SERCO rather than using GPs and local authorities,
  • and, most damning, failure to press on with the initial lock down to the point that infections were so low and rare that an effective track and trace system could have squashed any further outbreaks.

Projections of the decline in infections in mid May indicated that – other things being equal – sticking with the restrictions in the first lockdown could have eliminated domestic infections at some point in June. Instead they thought they could “manage” the situation and “live with” the virus; started lifting the restrictions and allowed the genie back out of the bottle; with the results that are all around us.

At the moment their approach seems to be a variant on the Great Barrington Declaration. They aim to vaccinate the most vulnerable, then remove restrictions to allow the rest of us to take our chances while explicitly ruling out an elimination strategy. Given that vaccination and having had the virus only confers a certain immunity for a limited time – 5 to 6 months – and vaccinating the entire population will take longer than that, the problem is obvious. This inevitably means that the virus will continue to evolve – probably to be more infectious than it currently is – because that’s how evolution works – unless it is eliminated.

Labour’s policy throughout has been defined by a search for “national consensus”, which has taken the form of tactical criticism on points of detail, but no alternative strategy. At points Keir Starmer was pressing the government from the wrong side, flagging up an “exit strategy” as the key issue during the first lockdown – rather than an “elimination strategy” within which “exit” would have been implicit – and for schools to open before it was safe to do so. This is in contrast with the approach of the teaching unions – especially the NEU – which have followed the science and put health first. Thousands of Section 44 safety letters generated from a 400,000 strong NEU meeting on the last day of the Xmas break will have helped nudge the government in the right direction. Slightly stronger calls from the front bench now are being driven by just how bad things are getting, but are too often phrased hesitantly. Nurseries should “probably” close, and so on.

This approach helps explain why a recent YouGov Poll showed that far more people blame each other than blame the government. This is absurd. An overwhelming majority of people both support and comply with restrictions brought in to stop infections. Despite mixed messages from the top and the campaigning of anti-lockdown head bangers like Nigel Farage, very, very few are breaking them lightly or rashly. Put bluntly, Boris Johnson is getting away with it – and persisting with a strategy that will cost many, many avoidable deaths – because the opposition is not pushing for the Zero COVID strategy we need to avoid them.

This Zero Covid rally at noon on Sunday 24th January should be built as widely as possible.

Confirmed Speakers:

Diane Abbott MP

Howard Beckett , Unite the Union

Richard Burgon MP

Richard Horton, editor of The Lancet.

Rokhsana Fiaz , Mayor of Newham

Along with other leading scientists, campaigners and activists to be announced!

https://www.eventbrite.co.uk/e/stopping-the-virus-it-doesnt-have-to-be-this-way-tickets-136004337635

This is a possible motion that could be put to CLPs.

Draft Resolution for GC

XXXX CLP recognises that 

  1. The evolution of a more infectious variant of the COVID19 virus is leading to a rapid increase in infections, hospitalisations and deaths.
  2. The government’s approach has led to one of the highest per capita death toll among the larger countries.  The objective of prioritising the economy has also been completely counter-productive as 900,000 people have already lost their jobs and international bodies such as the IMF and OECD forecast Britain will have one of the deepest recessions of any major economy.
  3. the governments approach is exactly the opposite of that needed; which is to drive down infections to the point that they can be controlled and managed until the virus is eliminated, which has been achieved in a number of other countries.

We welcome the deployment of vaccines as a way to speed up this elimination, but it is clear that the government has already mishandled the roll-out and its vaccination programme is not going to prevent new cases and deaths for weeks or months.
We believe that the Party nationally – and the front bench in Parliament – should be calling for a zero COVID strategy – designed to eliminate the virus. ​
That requires

  1. A serious lockdown to squash transmission to a point that the virus can be eliminated, the closure of all non-essential workplaces, schools, colleges and universities.
  2. Full economic support for everyone affected.
  3. Overhauling test and trace through the Health Service and Local Authorities so that it actually works, and full financial support for those in isolation.
  4. An economic recovery plan to regenerate the economy that also transforms it by investing in green transition on the scale proposed by the TUC – which could create 1.2 million jobs, stave off a recession and avert poverty.

Resolves 

  • to send this resolution to our NEC representatives and appropriate Shadow Minsters and circulate members.
  • to investigate Zero Covid initiatives and discuss them at the next EC.