On the way down the hill, I pass a man who looks as though he’s been out all night; battered wincing face, booze blotched complexion, dark glasses protecting from the glare of pale April sunlight. He marches grimly towards the sound of psychic gunfire, carrying an appeasing bouquet of flowers upside down in his fist in the same way you might carry a mallet.
Approaching the steep and teetering top of Haydon Close with the last lot of leaflets and there is a startlingly fresh cluster of daffodils, still clean and bright; a belated flowering in a higher altitude. Hints of snow line and time warp.
The little round woollen hat worn by a Buddhist monk on the 183 bus is on the beige side of saffron. Possibly indicating that he is a doctrinal moderate. The middle way of the middle way?
On the lunchtime Radio news, the update of the horrifying situation in India – people dying on the streets outside hospitals, a new viral variant now killing younger people and children, a black market in oxygen, desperate families trying to find any place for sick loved ones, or even a place to cremate them – is followed by a bloke from the hospitality trade calling for earlier and wider easing of restrictions to get business going and money flowing, because they think its all over. Cutting straight from one to the other is morally and emotionally dizzying. It reminds me of an edition of “Nationwide”- the BBCs early evening “news magazine” programme in the early seventies – in which a grave interview about a famine in Bangladesh was followed instantly with the presenter* turning straight to camera, making eye contact with the viewer in a horribly intimate way, swapping his serious look for something chummily happy and, with the air of relief of a man returning to the comforting insularity of his “normal” day to day preoccupations, announced …”NOW, holiday traffic!”
There is good news (with a caveat) on the rate of infection in the three areas I am monitoring this week. All have declined, with the overall suppressive impact of the wider social lockdown combining with mass vaccination to counteract the upward pressure from schools being open en masse.
While this is very welcome, the effect in all three places taken together is that infection rates are now only a little below the level they were when schools reopened. This is also true nationally.
The comparison with an extrapolation of the previous trend shows how this has missed a golden opportunity to bear down on the virus to near extinction point.
The next two weeks, with schools on Easter break, will reduce that upward pressure.
These are therefore the last weeks in which the reopening of schools is the main upward driver of infections, before the loosening of restrictions from April 6th begins to have an effect from about April 20th onwards – and the scheduled further loosening on April 12th kicks in from about April 28th.
The government calculation is that a wide enough vaccination roll out will reduce hospitalisations and death enough to be able to reopen on a far wider scale and get away with “living with the virus.”
The attempt to live with the virus in the absence of a high enough mass vaccination rate can be seen in Brazil; where Bolsonaro’s Bossa Nova is an unambiguous dance of death.
A reliance on mass vaccination as a single line of defence depends on the virus not evolving any variants that resist the vaccines. If it does, all countries that have not carried out a zero covid strategy will be back in the morass.
This week’s figures from the NEU Covid map for the local authority areas around my three exemplar primary schools show an acceleration of the trend that was already apparent barely a week into schools reopening. The rate of infection per 100,000 is increasing in all of them. With just under another week to go to the Easter break, we can expect this to continue; before the impact of that break would briefly take it down again if no other measures are taken to ease restrictions.
If the government sticks with dates over data and relaxes further restrictions on Monday (29 March) we can expect two weeks or so in which infection rates overall will still be primarily affected by the schools being open. After which the impact will be combined.
None of these measures wll reduce infection rates. Stay as we are and they will rise. Open up further and they will rise more quickly.
The government is gambling that the vaccine roll out will sufficiently reduce hospitalisations and deaths that the increase in infections can be ridden out; and Chris Whitty has argued this week that a zero covid policy is impossible, but that we should be aiming to keep it as low as possible.
There are a number of problems with this.
A lot of serious scientists disagree with Prof Whitty on zero covid, as you can see here.
The difficulty of keepng track of covid is very different problem when infections have been brought down to a very low level. While it can be assumed that there will be undetected cases out there – if there is an efficient test and trace system every newly identified case can be back tracked to prior contacts, who can then be tested and isolated as required. This has worked very effectively in South Korea, where they have had fewer infectyions than we have had deaths. Had schools been kept mostly shut until the end of the Easter holidays and all the other restrictions kept on, we’d have been at a low enough level to keep a lid on things. A few hundred a day. Having opened up – we won’t be.
So Whitty’s fatalism gives the government carte blanche and becomes a self fulfilling prophecy.
The wider consequences of a world in which the virus is a permanent feature are incompatible with going “back to normal” – or status quo ante virus – let alone building back better. If we accept that the genie is out of the bottle and can’t be got back in for large parts of the world, including us, a number of things follow.
Those parts of the world that have suppressed it – and don’t want to let it back in – will have continued border controls/quarantine indefinitely. They will also be able to have a more social society than those that have not and their economies will also grow relatively strongly. At present that is a large minority of the world, with China by far the largest component, but also includes Vietnam, Australia and New Zealand.
Those countries trying to “live with” the virus will be in a constant state of evolutionary struggle with it, as it mutates; necessarily becoming more infectious and vaccine resistant as it does. The bottom-line strategy of taking restrictive measures to stop health services being overwhelmed combined with a permanent cycle of mass innoculations is therefore a permanent prospect, as is a built in and residual popular caution – which will feed in to social behaviour and limit cultural and economic possibilities. An alternative scenario – that is not mutually exclusive – is that the Bulldog Drummond tendency gets its way and we let it all hang out in a last days in Nazi Berlin hedonistic frenzy (roaring twenties) in which a load of people die all at once and we go with the survival of the fittest. Either way, there is no quick fix and the next pandemic could be on us before we’ve cleaned up this one – just as the rate of natural disasters caused by climate breakdown will accelerate and intensify and overlap from here on.
Viruses can be eliminated. Polio. Smallpox. Therefore, should be. Like climate change, the consequences of not dealing with it are far worse than doing so. One strategy for so doing was set out very well by Devi Shridar in her recent New Statesman article.
The economic motivation for what the government is doing is well developed here. The popular view of “the economy” is that the ruling class operates it in a Benthamite spirit, primarily concerned with use values and the “greatest happiness of the greatest number”. In practice everything is subordinated to profit; and, in this crisis, some sectors have done spectacularly badly – hospitality, culture, mass tourism, others have done very well, online retail, pensions insurance; and the balance of forces between the classes has definitely shifted the wrong way and the stock market has boomed. They are not letting a good crisis go to waste.
Labour’s policy is a classic exercise in what Gramsci would have called corporate politics. Manoeuvring within the framework of your opponent. It helps consolidate the government’s position – because when they do become critical it comes across as churlish. Starmer seems less interested in winning than being a safe opposition on the off chance of being allowed into office as the fall-back option for the powers that be.
Sailors on ships of the line about to be hit by a broadside would quietly intone grace. “For what we are about to receive, may the Lord make us truly grateful.” And so it is with the wholesale reopening of schools on Monday.
This is particularly the case given that for the last four weeks there has been a significantly larger percentage of positive cases in the 5-9 age group in England, for both boys and girls. (1) A similar trend has been seen in Israel and some sharp localised outbreaks in Italy have been centred on schools.
In this context, looking at what happened in practice the last time that schools were fully open will give us a guide to what is likely to happen.
In the Autumn term the Health And Safety Executive carried out spot checks and inspections on schools to make sure that COVID safety measures were being implemented effectively. As these measures “have not been substantially changed” since then, their findings are instructive. (2)
It should be stressed that none of this addresses the wider safety issues of whole school reopening – particularly the journeys in and out – which are only covered obliquely in the guidance – but will involve a sudden rush of millions of daily interactions; which are bound to boost the overall R rate. Nor does it cover the likely effect of encouraging a sense that “things are getting back to normal” as swarms of kids reappear in the streets in the mornings and afternoons – with a knock on effect of people beginning to relax and drop their guard.
HSE spot checks and inspections in primary and secondary schools from September to December 2020.
“HSE contacted 5000 schools in England and Wales to check they were following the relevant government guidelines. This followed similar spot checks carried out in August on schools in Scotland.”
“Following the initial calls, HSE found that around 80% of schools had a good understanding of the guidance and what it means to be COVID-secure.”
The HSE makes no judgement on how much safer schools could have been if the unions 10 point recovery plan had been taken up by the DFE (3) but the 80% figure here is a testament to the hard work and dedication of school managements and the serious input made by the Education unions, whose safety checklist was used by Reps all over the country to make sure that risk assessments and procedures were in place and schools made as safe as it was possible to do within the limitations of the investment the government was prepared to put in. Sometimes school Heads who had previously been institutionally hostile to their union groups found themselves working constructively with Reps because the union guidance was so sound and thorough. However, some did not. 80% is a good figure, but that still leaves one school in five with a poor grasp of safety measures which are a matter of life and death. With 24, 372 schools in England, extrapolating their sample and assuming all other factors remain equal, that would mean that roughly 4, 875 schools had a poor grasp of the guidance. One in five. That would be the sort of place where Heads tried to insist on physical parents evenings or open days taking place, or in person staff meetings, or people of the CEV list coming in to work, or Christmas performances that would presumably be protected by God.
“For those schools, HSE undertook over 1000 follow up site inspections to check the measures they had in place.” While these schools responded positively and “nearly all …had implemented COVID-secure measures in accordance with the relevant government guidelines” by the end of term, obviously, this only covered the schools they had initially contacted; so potentially the remaining 3,875 slipped through the net.
Just under ” 1% identified contraventions of health and safety requiring formal interventions and improvement.” 1% of 24,372 schools is about 240. Not many, but more than enough.
If there is a similar pattern in the next three weeks up to Easter and beyond into the Summer term, the sort of concerns Inspectors had “included social distancing in staff rooms and kitchen/canteens, cleaning regimes, and ventilation in school buildings.”
Ventilation was a particular issue, so the HSE has updated its guidance (4) which will be useful for anyone in a school where this has not been sorted.
Other problems included:
Generic risk assessments being used which sometimes lacked specific detail for the school.
Lack of effective systems for regular monitoring and review of risk assessments.
Fire doors being propped open to aid ventilation.
Inappropriate rooms being used for isolating suspected cases.
Arrangements for managing external visitors and/or contractors.
good ideas they noted included:
Promoting social distancing by issuing pupils with coloured lanyards to identify their bubble and to help avoid mixing between different groups.
Using brightly coloured floor markings in school playgrounds to encourage two metre social distancing between parents and pupils during drop-off and collection times.
One school used a year seven science project looking at handwashing and UV light as a means of promoting effective hand hygiene.
Producing video walkthroughs explaining COVID-secure arrangements for pupils and parents.
Use of classroom seating plans to help with self-isolation measures.
A click-and-collect app to purchase food from the canteen to reduce queues and avoid crowding.
Using video conferencing for staff meetings and phones in classrooms to speak to other staff to reduce face-to-face contact.
The role of unions in each workplace, making sure that these guidelines are upheld, has been essential in limiting the damage so far, and will be just as urgently needed in the next period, as the government once again skids over thin ice with its eyes shut and fingers crossed.
As Boris Johnson loves his World War 2 references, those who argue that the coronavirus crisis is not a big deal – an argument quite painful to those of us who have lost friends or relatives to it – or that the UK government has done a good job in containing it, so we should all rally round them – should consider the following.
There have been 117,000 deaths since January 31st last year in 380 days; giving a daily death rate of 308.
There were 449,700 total UK casualties in the 2,190 days of World War 2; giving a daily death rate of 205.
The comparison looks like this.
It has been pointed out that, if you take account of the increase in the UK population since the 1940s, the daily death rate per capita of those killed by Covid is about the same as all those killed by the Wehrmacht and Imperial Japanese armed forces between 1939 and 1945. It should not need saying that this is a pretty grim benchmark that no government should congratulate itself for presiding over.
It should also be stressed that British casualties per head of population in WW2 were low by comparison with other countries, just under 1% of the total, compared with 3-4% in China and 13% in the Soviet Union; while and our death rate from COVID is the third worst in the world. (1)
To stop this going on and on and on, we need a zero covid strategy to finish the job.