Good News and Bad News. Impact of Schools Reopening Week 4.

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 impact of schools reopening can be seen in the higher rate of infections for school age cohorts than any others – explained very clearly here by the NEU

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.

Impact of school reopening on Covid infection after three weeks.

The only way is up?


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.

  1. A lot of serious scientists disagree with Prof Whitty on zero covid, as you can see here.
  2. 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. 
  3. 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. 

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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
  1. 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.
  1. 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.

UK Daily Covid Death Rate as bad as that of World War 2.

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.

So, in absolute absolute figures the Covid death rate is a third worse than that of WW2

Update 17/2/21

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.

Check out https://www.facebook.com/ZeroCovidCoalition/

1 https://www.statista.com/statistics/1104709/coronavirus-deaths-worldwide-per-million-inhabitants/

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.

End of term Report – how badly did the government do?

In a week in which the Health Secretary has wept on TV claiming that he is “proud to be British” a reality check on just how badly his Conservative government have managed the COVID crisis and why is unavoidable.

The graph below shows the deaths per million of the UK – which

-flirted with herd immunity in February/March,

-went for one of the loosest lockdowns in Europe in April/May,

-reopened its economy prematurely over the Summer,

-hesitated over re-imposing restrictions as the virus rebounded in September/October,

-tightened them too late in November (while leaving schools open and allowing infections to rip among Secondary school students especially)

-and is now trying to keep restrictions loosened over Xmas, largely for commercial reasons,

with countries in the Western Pacific region that had a policy to eliminate the virus, not try to “live with” it. Because the figures for these countries are so small, here they are. Compared to the UK’s 877 deaths per million, New Zealand has had just 5, China even fewer with 3; and Vietnam with 0.5.

“Proud to be British”?

If you want to see that on a comparative pie graph of the deaths in each country compared with each other, it looks like this.

The Health Secretary might well weep.

It might be argued that Vietnam and New Zealand’s strategy was primarily to close down their borders and test everyone that came in – quarantining anyone who tested positive – to prevent the virus getting a foothold in the first place. So they did. But that option was available to Britain too in late February. The government didn’t take it – and was very resistant to any quarantining measures for air travelers until the end of May, just as the first partial lockdown began to relax. The current relaxation on restrictions on “high value” travelers is a clue as to why. Such restrictions would affect business travelers – and that would never do.

The comparison with China is even more damning. The initial outbreak of the virus was in Wuhan. A city of 11 million people, slightly larger than London, the capital of Hubei Province, which has 58 million people, slightly smaller than the UK and about the same as England. As the first victim of the virus, it might be reasonable to assume that the Chinese would have been taken more by surprise and overwhelmed than anywhere else; and there was a period in late December to late January in which there was definite confusion and fumbling at a local level when it was unclear what they were dealing with; but at the same time intensive work was being done on what exactly the virus was, how it originated and was transmitting itself, all of which was being shared with the WHO. And, once it was clear just how dangerous it was, the measures taken were swift, definite and had the clear aim of eliminating it. And, they worked. So, even with a significant outbreak in a densely populated urban centre that is a transport and communications hub, a zero COVID strategy was capable of closing down domestic infections. It took six weeks. It is that that has enabled the Chinese economy to recover at the speed and scale that it has done. The UK government has no excuse – because, after the Wuhan experience, they knew what was coming. They chose not to act.

Even in a comparison with other European countries – which have all tried variations on the same policy as the UK – “balancing” the needs of health against economic imperatives – and which have therefore had a similar result in balancing an ongoing health crisis with an ongoing economic crisis -the UK is in the worst four for death rates (1) so, in football terms, we’d be qualifying for the Champions League. Nothing to be proud of.

More importantly, we are heading for a third wave in January, especially if the Xmas relaxation is maintained, so a Zero COVID strategy and movement is urgently needed and all the forces gathering in different groups around this should be coming together to push to get a West Pacific result.

  1. https://www.statista.com/statistics/1111779/coronavirus-death-rate-europe-by-country/