WeeklyWorker

23.07.2020
Expect a winter upsurge

On a wing and a prayer

Like you, Eddie Ford is sceptical about things ‘returning to normal’ by Christmas

Always wanting to be the purveyor of good news, Boris Johnson has reassured us that there would be a “significant return to normality” by Christmas. Of course, that largely depends on your definition of normality - or even its desirability. But the current situation means continued misery for millions and risks completely tanking the economy, leading to greater misery.

Johnson told us that local authorities would have new powers to close specific premises, shut outdoor spaces and cancel events. Furthermore, central government will be able to intervene in local areas by issuing ‘stay at home’ orders, limiting the numbers at gatherings and restricting transport. Cheering us up even more, or so he hopes, the prime minister said it might be possible to “move away from the social distancing measures” by November. You will possibly be able to see your grandchildren again.

Boris Johnson also announced that it will be up to bosses to discuss with their workers whether it would be safe to return to work from August 1 - a chat to look forward to no doubt. Most remaining leisure settings and close-contact services such as beauticians will be allowed to reopen from the same date. Nightclubs stay closed, however. And current advice to “avoid” public transport in England is being scrapped - hardly surprising, as it was something near impossible to do anyway, especially in large cities. Indoor performances to live audiences will also resume, subject to pilots - the same goes for larger gatherings in sports stadiums. Wedding receptions for up to 30 people will also be allowed.

Meanwhile, coronavirus testing will apparently be boosted to increase capacity to “at least” half a million a day by the end of October - much better than a mere 100,000 a day - and £3 billion of extra funding will help the national health service prepare for a possible second coronavirus wave. The good times could start returning by the time you put the Christmas tree up, though Johnson claimed he was “hoping for the best and planning for the worst”. This is stretching credibility, as “planning” is not a word you associate with the bungling and shambolic Johnson government. Rather, like everything else he does, his hopes are based on a wing and a prayer.

A few days later in an interview for The Sunday Telegraph, we learn that the prime minister does not want to impose a second national lockdown - comparing it to a “nuclear deterrent” (though he failed to elaborate on this analogy). Anyway, with £3 billion tucked away just in case he has to make a second strike, Johnson does not think the country “will be in that position again”, as authorities and health experts were getting better at identifying and isolating local outbreaks - how the virus works, how it is transmitted, the possibility of different types of segmentation, enhanced shielding for particular groups, and so on.

He went on to say that his agenda for domestic reform and “levelling up” the economy would not be blown off course by the pandemic, nuclear winter or not. “We want to be a transformative government, because there’s a massive opportunity in this country to do things differently and to do things better,” he brightly declared. Whilst the civil service is “absolutely fantastic”, it goes without saying, maybe there are ways in which “we can all learn together to do things faster” and “have a real spirit of ‘can do’”. Sometimes, you know, as Johnson said in the interview, it is just “a question of confidence and belief” - the bulldog spirit. More vacuous boosterism from the prime minister.

Cycle

Striking a very different tone are the scientists and experts. Sir Patrick Vallance, the UK’s chief scientific advisor, has warned that, come winter, the challenges “will be very much greater”, with a risk that this could require “national measures as well”, local lockdowns being insufficient. He told MPs that, unlike Boris Johnson, he saw “absolutely no reason” for people to stop working from home - which for many companies, after all, “remains a perfectly good option, because it’s easy to do”. The trouble with very large numbers working from home, of course, is they do not buy sandwiches, doughnuts, pretzels, coffee, shoes, shirts, etc - having an impact on the economy.

Also failing to offer a booster was professor John Edmunds, a member of the government’s Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage). He told the BBC’s Today programme that a return to pre-lockdown normality was “a long way off” - suggesting that the Christmas deadline was a pipedream. Widespread travelling on public transport, going on holiday without restrictions, hugging and shaking hands with friends, parties, festivals - just forget it. “If we return to those sorts of normal behaviours the virus will come back very fast,” the professor argued. We will not be able to do any of this stuff “until we are immune to the virus” - which means, Edmunds reminded us, “until we have a vaccine that is proven safe and effective”. And, of course, there might not be a vaccine ready for mass immunisation until next year or later, for all of the seemingly hopeful signs coming from Oxford University and elsewhere.

Perhaps a bit more encouragingly, the UK’s national statistician, Sir Ian Diamond, has said that so far he has “not noticed any rise in coronavirus cases” since the lockdown measures were eased. When questioned on Sky News as to whether he had expected to see an increase in the number of infections, he replied that it depended on “how the population works”. If we stay alert, keep socially distanced, wear masks, regularly wash our hands and are “really super-careful”, then there should be “a relative flatline at the moment”. Clearly, he added, over the autumn “we will need to be ever vigilant”. Coughs and sneezes spread diseases.

Crashing us back to reality, however, was Sir John Bell - regius professor of medicine at Oxford University. He suspects that the pathogen underpinning the novel virus may never be eliminated, meaning that Covid-19 could be “here forever”. Giving evidence at a session of the Commons Health and Social Care Committee, Bell said that any potential coronavirus vaccine “is unlikely to have a durable effect that’ll last for a very long time” - thus there will be “a continual cycle of vaccinations and then more disease; and more vaccinations and more disease”. An extremely uncheery thought that will not please Boris Johnson or Weekly Worker readers. The distinguished scientist compared the coronavirus to polio as an example of how difficult it can be to completely suppress a disease, pointing out that the eradication programme has been going on for 15 years. Similarly, according to Bell, Covid-19 is “going to come and go”, and “we’re going to get winters where we get a lot of this virus back in action”.

As for the British government, he continued, it has been “asleep” to the threat of the virus, despite “eight close calls” of emerging infectious diseases since 2000. An assessment shared by Sir Paul Nurse, a Nobel Prize-winning geneticist. Also giving evidence to the same committee, he said that “it’s not always been clear” to him and his colleagues “as to who is in charge exactly and who’s been making decisions” - he sensed that “there has been too much ‘pass the parcel’”. He warned that Britain risks sleepwalking into a “winter of discontent”, unless clear governance structures are implemented for the remainder of the pandemic.

Anyhow, the government has secured early access to 90 million Covid-19 vaccine doses through partnerships with the pharmaceutical companies, BioNTech and Pfizer. Researchers at Oxford University have announced that a vaccine being developed in collaboration with AstraZeneca induces a “strong immune response” and “appears” to be safe.

This more optimistic news was offset by a slightly odd dispute within Public Health England, saying it was “pausing” the publication of the daily death figure, while officials investigate claims that the numbers may have been distorted. The current tally stands at 45,501 with 296,3777 infections, as of July 22. Matt Hancock, the health secretary - remember him? - is seeking an “urgent review” into possible “data flaws” that have exaggerated the number of fatalities by including every death where a person has previously tested positive for Covid-19. For example, elderly people who recover from coronavirus but die months later of an unrelated illness could still end up being counted as part of the coronavirus official death toll in England (where they would not be in Scotland, Wales or Northern Ireland). About 80,000 recovered patients in the community are continuing to be monitored by PHE for the daily death statistics, even though many are elderly and may die of something else.

Frankly, it is far more likely that the number of Covid-19 deaths has been undercounted, not overcounted. This is especially the case when you consider around 3,500 people in England may die within the next five years of one of the four main cancers - breast, lung, oesophageal or bowel - as a result of delays in being diagnosed because of Covid-19. Many of these will be young or middle-aged people, say researchers in the Lancet Oncology journal. Routine cancer screening was suspended during the lockdown, as was routine referral to hospital outpatient departments of people with symptoms that might possibly be cancer. On average, those who die would have lived for 20 more years without the delay caused by the coronavirus pandemic.

eddie.ford@weeklyworker.co.uk