Dithering, cronyism and numerous strategic failures have left the country stuck in a cycle of lockdowns; Over 100,000 dead, top of the international table of death rates by size of the population and with one of the worst affected economies.
It is an immense challenge for every government, but Johnson’s strategy has so far failed to adequately protect the population and their livelihoods.
The rollout of the vaccine offers hope with first jabs already given to 7 million – only Israel and the UAE have vaccinated more (per 100,000 of population), but the government must urgently fix the other elements of its strategy: test and trace, economic support, local and national coordination if it is to finally grasp control of the virus.
Why we can’t rely only on the vaccine
The UK variant of the virus is up to 70% more transmissible and appears to have around a 30% higher mortality rate amongst some age groups, scientists tell us that wider vaccine coverage will be needed to dampen its effects, which will take longer.
Experts also expect the virus to mutate and that new versions of the vaccines will need to be developed, so we need strong public health measures to run alongside vaccines.
Scientists still don’t know if the current vaccines reduce transmission, or how long coverage will last and what effect there will be on the effectiveness of the vaccine by delaying the second jabs by up to 12 weeks in order to give more people a first.
It is also clear that hospitalisation is now higher in younger age groups, and it will be several months before all these groups get the jab.
So, the government must not focus only on the vaccine rollout, it must also face up to the critical flaws in its strategy to develop a long-term way of living with the virus.
There are calls for urgent improvement in three key parts of the Covid response.
Support for people going into isolation
This week Newsnight revealed how few people were managing to access payments to help them self-isolate. Research by the Labour party suggested just 12,069 of 49,877 applications were successful.
The Mayor of Newham one of the poorest in London told the BBC that the majority of residents in her borough applying for isolation payments scheme cannot access them because they don’t qualify.
Prof Susan Michie, an adviser on the government’s Scientific Pandemic Insights Group on Behaviours, told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme that the lack of financial support was a “key weakness” of the government’s strategy. She stated that only 18% of people with symptoms were self-isolating for ten days.
Covid is hitting the poorest areas hardest; those who are living in cramped living conditions, and with insecure jobs and incomes. No surprise then that too few people are able to follow the instructions of the government app and go into isolation unsupported.
A public network of test and trace
£10bn in Test and trace contracts were hastily passed to commercial companies to manage these key elements of the response, by-passing the network of NHS labs and the tracing expertise that already exists in local public health. And the PM promised a “world-beating system”.
After a slow and stuttering start, PCR testing capacity has been raised – 5% of the population were tested in the second week of January, but despite Serco and Sitel hiring 18000 contact tracers this centralised system has regularly failed to reach 80% of the contacts of infected people – the minimum sage quoted for it to be effective.
In contrast where local council teams have undertaken tracing they have been able to reach this target, but they are currently only dealing with around 4% of Covid cases.
Calls are mounting to bring the management back in-house, and integrate the lighthouse labs and tracing centres with existing local NHS and public health resources.
Stronger travel restrictions
At the last count, the UK had 146 deaths per 100,000, the highest death worldwide. By comparison Australia on the same day had zero new cases; achieved by locking down early, closing borders on March 20, 2020, and imposing a mandatory 14-day quarantine in a designated facility for international arrivals. The UK government is only now stepping up its targeted restrictions on inward travel, but these steps have been criticised for coming far too late.
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