“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.