“The government is currently refusing to budge. But we know this is a government which can be forced to U-turn.”Diane Abbott MP.
Diane Abbott MP
Life in Britain, including political life is once more dominated by the spread of the Covid-19 virus and the government’s failures to halt it.
On February 22nd the government published a ‘roadmap’ out of the lockdown we have all had to endure. This lockdown, our third, is actually longer than many countries’ sole lockdown. The countries that have successfully suppressed the virus include Australia, China, New Zealand, Thailand and Viet Nam all achieved that by having a both a much stricter, shorter regime and by having an effective system of testing, tracing and properly supported isolation. The government still does not have any of those in place.
So, the roadmap is itself seriously, potentially fatally flawed. Just as the government was outlining its plans there were two other important pieces of news. The first was that the average of new daily cases is over 11,000 and the average for new deaths is almost 500 per day. There is a possibility that new cases will be as high coming out of this lockdown as they were at the peak of the first wave in April, 5,000 a day or more.
The second news item was that the minutes of the most recent SAGE meeting were publicised. SAGE emphasised that it had “previously advised that the opening and closing of schools is likely to have an impact on transmission and R, and that policymakers need to consider the balance of risks and harms. The opening of primary and secondary schools is likely to increase effective R by a factor of 1.1 to 1.5 (10% to 50%) (medium confidence)”.
There are two risks from a premature relaxation of lockdown led by reopening of the schools. The first is that, exactly as SAGE says, transmission and infection rates will go into reverse, having fallen from late January after lockdown was imposed. The second risk is that, in the absence of a suppression strategy, the virus will freely circulate and then mutate once more into even more deadly strains. Again, this is a risk identified with current policy by SAGE itself. The government has clearly ignored this advice.
SAGE also emphasises the global nature of this pandemic, which is important for the whole world, including this country. “Aside from the significant human and social costs around the world, ongoing transmission in other countries would continue to pose a threat to UK health even if the epidemic were under control in this country and a high proportion of the population were vaccinated”.
Yet the epidemic here is clearly not under control, and only a minority of the population has received even a single jab. Public Health England (PHE) has assessed the efficacy of single jabs and the recommended double-dose. PHE found that protection from a single jab rose after a number of weeks to just under 60%. But the protection after just a few days for a second jab was around 96%. These are great outcomes.
Yet contrary to government ministers, there is no suggestion in the minutes that vaccines are or can be a magic bullet. Two-fifths of all those receiving a single jab have no protection from the virus. But they are all encouraged to believe and to act as if they have full protection. Once again the Government is not being straight with the public and is taking another gamble with public health.
The crunch point ahead is the government plan to reopen all the schools in a ‘big bang’ on March 8th. This flies in the face of its own expert advice, the policy of the administrations in the rest of the country, and our own bitter experience about the spread of the virus after schools reopened last September.
I would urge everyone to read and support the joint statement from nine unions in response to the government’s plans. They describe those plans as reckless, and argue instead for a phased return to schools, with rotas, ‘blended learning’ and a number of simple but effective safety measures.
The government is currently refusing to budge. But we know this is a government which can be forced to U-turn. Unions showed that over the Chancellor’s plans to cut furlough pay to two-thirds of wages, and both Marcus Rashford and Jo Whiley can testify to it over free school meals and vaccines for the learning disabled respectively.
The key issue now is the unity of all those demanding a different course of action from the government in applying the maximum amount of pressure on this issue. Those who work in schools care about themselves, their own loved ones and the pupils we entrust to them. But in opposing a reckless reopening of schools now they are acting in all our interests. They deserve our full support.
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