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~)

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. ‚Äč
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.

Let’s not get previous about the vaccine.

With all the pathetic, posturing, patriotic hoo-ha around getting the vaccination programme authorised first- nothing like authorising a vaccine developed in Germany by Turkish immigrants for a US company manufactured in Belgium to make you “Proud to be British”- and hyped up just in time to give everyone false reassurance before the Xmas relaxation of restrictions generates the same sort of third wave as we saw in the USA after Thanksgiving – the quantity of vaccine currently available has been downplayed.

The UK currently has 800,000 doses. As everyone has to be vaccinated twice, that’s enough for 400.000 people. Considering vulnerable groups, there are 3.2 million people aged over 80. In addition there are 1.3 million workers in the NHS and 1.5 million working in adult social care, so its not going to stretch very far very fast.

A million more doses are due next week, but even if that rate of supply is kept up it would take until the end of January just to do all of the over eighties; assuming that no front line workers are going to be covered at the same time.

Because it is going to take a long time, even to vaccinate the most vulnerable, any delusions that its all over are very dangerous. If you add that to Jonathan Van Tam’s argument that the virus cannot be eliminated and we are going to have to live with it forever, a worrying variant on herd immunity is starting to re-emerge.

Rather than seeing the vaccines as a tool to eradicate the virus, the logic of this is that if the most vulnerable are vaccinated, it becomes an “acceptable level of risk” for everyone else to go back to normal before they are vaccinated and therefore still in danger. This will be posed in macho, character building terms about not hiding under the sheets for fear of the virus. But to mangle one of Van Tam’s metaphors, even if all the penalty takers get on to the train that is just pulling into the station, not only will the train be travelling very slowly once it sets off, it doesn’t actually have a destination and will just keep trundling along for ever and ever amen.

The approach to schools during the tightened restrictions that have just ended has been a dummy run for this. It rapidly became apparent that secondary school students were the age group with the most rapid viral spread – but schools were kept open. The relatively small dent in viral spread made by the Mockdown, compared to the previous one in the Spring can partly be attributed to this.

Although the government in Wales has finally moved to distance learning for the last two weeks of term, without the UK government following suit – and also keeping restrictions in place over Xmas as tight as they were during Eid and Diwali – we will be heading for a third wave in January and the vaccine programme will barely dent it.