NHS Vaccination Centre photo by Tim Dennell

With infections at record levels – Covid isn’t over – by Joan Twelves

“Hospitalisations and deaths – while less than during previous peaks – are rising; and disruption to education, the health service, business and the economy as a whole is having a significant effect”

Joan Twelves

By Joan Twelves

The Tory government is trying to gaslight us into thinking that Covid is over despite infections being at record levels and rising.

According to the Office of National Statistics just under 5 million people in England – 7.5% of the population – have Covid this week. This is 1 in 13, up from the previous week’s 1 in 16, which itself was a rise of 1 million from the week before.

The figures in the UK’s devolved nations are no better – 1 in 12 in Scotland, 1 in 14 in Wales and 1 in 15 in Northern Ireland.

This level of infection is the highest recorded by the ONS Survey since it began looking at the situation in April 2020, and surpasses the previous high at the start of 2022, when 1 in 15 people in England were estimated to have Covid.

Hospitalisations and deaths – while less than during previous peaks – are rising; and disruption to education, the health service, business and the economy as a whole is having a significant effect as staff (and pupil) absences rise. The pressure on an NHS under orders to deal with waiting lists is becoming unsustainable.

And yet the Secretary of State for Health says the rise is ‘not a concern’ and ‘is to be expected’. His advice just a few days before Tory MPs gathered for a slap-up dinner? ‘Socialise a bit less’.

The latest variant, Omicron BA.2, is even more transmissible than the original Omicron, BA.1, which caused the December surge; reinfection is possible and vaccine protection is waning. Just the moment, then, for all measures to protect us from continuing infection to be scrapped!

The UK is not alone in trying to brush the rising tide of Omicron BA.2 aside; the USA and most European countries are similarly removing all precautions and protections, and moving to a policy of ‘living with the virus’ (or rather ‘let’s just ignore the virus’) as BA.2 surges.

This policy is based on the belief – one without any scientific evidence – that each variant of the SARS-CoV2 will become milder. But as Christina Paget wrote in the Guardian on 30 March:

“It is … simply not true that viruses always evolve to become milder. What drives evolution is transmission: variants that infect more people will thrive. Because most Covid transmission happens while people have no or few symptoms, severity is not a driver of evolution but instead a by-product of whichever mutations improve transmission and how they interact with existing levels of immunity. For Alpha and Delta, this led to greater severity and for Omicron (somewhat) less severity, but this was an evolutionary accident. The next variant could easily be more severe again.”

And for many people BA.2 is not that mild, especially if they are immunosuppressed or it leads to Long Covid. The most infected cohorts at the moment are unvaccinated primary aged children and the over 70s. Despite a high level of vaccination, the latter group in particular are at risk from a bout of Covid leading to all sorts of complications.

I have to wonder whether the people who tell us that Covid is ‘just like the flu’ have ever had any kind of influenza more serious than ‘man flu’? Do they even understand that flu is also a killer, albeit a much lesser one than Covid? The World Health Organization estimates that 290,000 to 650,000 people die of flu-related causes every year worldwide. 6,168,174 have died from Covid-19 so far.

I also have to wonder whether they understand what Long Covid can involve. Months if not years of incapacity, pain, fatigue, frustration, depression. ‘Brain fog’ may not sound very serious if you’ve never experienced it. But just try driving, handling machinery (even a power tool or an iron), trying to read a book, let alone write anything, when your concentration has gone out the window.

While we are exhorted to get vaccinated, or to get another booster (the fifth for some of us), the fact that the latest variant has breached the vaccine’s defences should be of much more concern than we are witnessing. As Prof Danny Altmann argues, instead of relying on frequent boosters of the same vaccines, we must develop better and longer lasting ones. But instead of investing in the necessary research this government is rewarding the UK’s scientists by selling off the £200 million Oxford Vaccine Centre.

I fully support the vaccination programme but depending solely on it – this government’s only ‘strategy’ – is surely being undermined by the virus’ ability to evade our immune systems. Other protections are essential – the ones which they call restrictions and I call freedom. Mask wearing in public places, ventilation, social distancing, self-isolation are all essential mitigations which we must demand are restored.

So it is in the context of the government’s gaslighting strategy that we have to understand not just the removal of all mandatory mitigations but in particular the withdrawal of free testing and the cuts in funding for academic research and surveillance.

At £2 for a single lateral flow test, a family pack of five is a tenner most people can’t afford on top of all the other price rises this week. And don’t even think about getting a PCR test!

The introduction of charges for a vital medical test in the same week national insurance goes up to, we are told, “help the NHS” is not just a sick joke but a dangerous precedent. What other NHS diagnostic tests will we be charged for next? HIV tests? Mammograms?

The list of those eligible for free tests is extremely restricted and only includes a few of those who were previously advised to shield – many of whom continue to do so to this day. As Frances Ryan so eloquently wrote in the Guardian on 31 March,

“Some high-risk people who need to have Covid treatments, such as antivirals, will be granted free tests, but government guidelines say they are only to be used once they are ill and already showing symptoms. It’s the public health equivalent of closing the stable door after the horse has bolted. This fundamentally misses what has been so valuable about large-scale testing over the past two years: it’s not that high-risk people can see if they have Covid, but that those they’re due to come into contact with can.”

This last point is one I have been making. I don’t need to know whether I have Covid – I need to know whether you have and are therefore likely to infect me. It’s a similar message to that for mask-wearing – a message this government has doggedly failed to get across – ‘Your mask protects me; my mask protects you’.

So where is the data going to come from if only a few people are doing tests? Will the numbers drop dramatically next week? After pressure the ONS survey will continue but with a reduced sample of participants. Other surveys will lose funding. Without testing the government’s data dashboard will quickly become meaningless. And without contact tracing the virus will keep infecting and mutating.

However many times I write that this government’s approach to the pandemic has been callous and corrupt, I still find I am taken aback by their approach. Are they really trying to pretend Covid has gone away? Are they really saying that it is legal to infect others?

But this is a government who has shelled out over £700m, with the Department Of Health and Social Care continuing to spend £7m a month, storing useless PPE, much of which came through that Tory- chums VIP channel; who are cutting benefits and pensions while the cost of living and inflation soars and think a loan is the way to help with fuel prices; who issue orders to drown refugees then talk big about saving Ukrainians lives but don’t deliver visa waivers. So why am I surprised at their continuing cruelty and contempt for others? Why are we all not so much more angry?

NHS Vaccination Centre photo by Tim Dennell
Attribution-NonCommercial 2.0 Generic (CC BY-NC 2.0) Tim Dennell on flickr

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