A reckless gamble

With the prospect of an alarming rise in Covid infections, Boris Johnson is saying "bring it on"

Since Britain’s prime minister Boris Johnson announced a bonfire of Covid-19 restrictions planned for July 19 and beyond, political and other voices have been chorusing that the country will now “have to learn to live with Covid”.

What that actually means is that the country will have to learn to die with it. As Johnson said in virtually the next breath: 

we must reconcile ourselves, sadly, to more deaths from Covid.

Cases in Britain of Covid-19 have been doubling every nine days and hospitalisations have also been also rising, albeit at a slower rate. The cause is the super-infectious Delta variant which now accounts for the vast majority of new cases. As the Health Secretary Sajid Javid has acknowledged, by July 19 cases could top 50,000 per day and surge beyond 100,000 in August, which would be nearly double the winter peak. 

As a result of the vaccination programme, however, few are currently becoming seriously ill and fewer still are dying. However, the trend is still causing serious alarm. Some 33 Covid deaths were registered overnight, more than twice as many as last Wednesday when there were 14. As Britain’s Chief Scientist, Sir Patrick Vallance, said: 

The vaccines have weakened the link, not broken it. 

SAGE, the government’s scientific advisory group, is anxious. The Mail reported

But documents released by SAGE alongside the Downing Street press conference last night show that the expert group still has concerns about lifting all curbs when infections and hospital admissions are climbing.   

The panel warned that should a “variant of concern” arrive that threatened immunity, lockdown restrictions would need to reimposed for much longer. It said that some “baseline measures” may have to stay, with “sustained behavioural change” necessary.

Experts said self-isolation when ill would remain “critical” and working from home was a “highly effective” long-term option. And in a grim sign that Britons face a return of some curbs in the near future, SAGE added: “Stronger measures may be desirable for autumn and winter”. 

Let’s scroll back. At the very beginning of this crisis, the government was intending to rely on “herd immunity” to get through it. Believing Covid-19 was like the flu, it thought it could tolerate a similar death toll among principally very old people.

When it eventually grasped that Covid-19 couldn’t possibly be compared with the flu, being both potentially more lethal and far more infectious, it realised that under a “herd immunity” policy the health service would collapse, the economy would buckle and the public would be traumatised and appalled. 

So it rapidly reversed course, introducing (with varying degrees of lamentable incompetence) measures such as social distancing, testing and lockdowns. The principal error was that, on no fewer than three successive occasions, Johnson was far too slow to introduce restrictions. Each time he was forced to do so by infections galloping out of control; each time, this delay caused more people to become infected, get seriously ill or die than would otherwise have been the case.

What was particularly striking, however, was what was deemed to matter most to the government. This was to protect the NHS and prevent it from being overwhelmed by Covid sufferers. 

In itself, this was a reasonable anxiety. But as was demonstrated by the shunting of Covid patients from hospitals into care homes, which then became overwhelmed as a result by the rate of death and disease among their vulnerable residents, the main focus of concern was not with the well-being of individuals but with the well-being of an institution — the NHS. 

And now we can see the same unsettling priority coming into focus once again. For the “herd immunity” strategy is back, well before enough people have been vaccinated to provide protection for the community as a whole. This time, the government is knowingly allowing the virus to take wide hold. In effect, it’s saying “bring it on”.

The justification for this remarkable approach is twofold. First, the vaccine is thought to be preventing an exponential rise in hospitalisations — so the NHS isn’t going to be under threat.  Second, it’s thought that the inevitable rise in Covid infections which will result from relaxing restrictions will be more difficult to cope with in the winter alongside the expected rise in seasonal illnesses, such as the flu. So it’s deemed better to provoke this rise in the summer — so that the NHS doesn’t come under threat.

But as a result, many individuals may now come under threat. For plenty of people in Britain aren’t covered by even one vaccination, let alone two. And there is still capacity for an exponential rise in serious cases among millions of people made vulnerable by age, co-morbidities and the fact that the vaccine itself doesn’t provide perfect protection — not to mention the ever-more alarming effects of “long Covid” among some people who display only mild initial symptoms but who have developed serious and long-term chronic ailments as a result of contracting the virus.

As so often during this pandemic, Israel (where I am) once again provides an instructive comparison. Israel is currently experiencing a Delta variant wave, which broke just as the country started lifting many restrictions and opening up. This is even though about 80 per cent of Israelis aged 16 and above have received two doses of the Pfizer vaccine, a significantly higher vaccination rate than in Britain.

Yesterday, Israel registered more than 500 Covid cases for the second day in a row, with concerns being expressed that this rate may double by the end of the week.

The Jerusalem Post reports that, as of this afternoon, some 46 patients were in serious condition, six more than yesterday. More than 40 per cent of current virus carriers are schoolchildren, and almost half are people who have been fully vaccinated.

But here’s the thing. While the proportion of serious cases is very much lower than earlier in the pandemic, it is nevertheless rising. The Post reports: 

About 40 per cent of the patients in serious conditions were also fully vaccinated [my emphasis]. Ash [Coronavirus Commissioner Professor Nachman Ash] said that most of them belonged to groups considered at risk (over 60 or with pre-existing conditions).

In other words, while the vaccine is helping reduce the worst effects of the virus, a troubling number of people are still becoming seriously ill even if they’ve had both shots.

Israeli scientists have now reported a reduction in the vaccine's efficacy. Before the Delta variant, the vaccine was 94 per cent effective against Covid infection; now, with Delta accounting for some 90 per cent of all cases, the vaccine is only 64 per cent effective. 

Moreover, YNet reports further about the vaccine’s efficacy:

In the period between May 2 and June 5, there was a 98.2 per cent protection from serious illness but after June 6 and until July 3, protection dropped to just 93 per cent. However, the vaccines were found to be still effective against serious illness that could lead to hospitalisation. A senior health official said on Sunday that the recent data was a real cause for concern. “Vaccines appear to be less effective,” the official said.

As a result, Professor Eli Waxman, who heads the pandemic advisory team for Israel’s National Security Council, has warned:

We are in the midst of a coronavirus outbreak, with confirmed cases doubling every week and we must not allow the situation to get out of hand and infections to continue to rise. If we reach 3,000 new daily infections, which could happen in three to four weeks with the outbreak’s current trajectory, we will see 50 new serious cases a day, and three weeks after that, we'll see hospitals having to care for 700 severely ill. We cannot allow these numbers to rise. We must stop this as soon as possible. 

Most of Israel’s new cases are occurring among children. Unlike Britain, which is reluctant to vaccinate children, Israel is now vaccinating them from 12 years old upwards. Although currently children generally have only mild symptoms, Professor Waxman said some might suffer from long-term side effects: 

“We still do not know what are the long-term effects of the Delta strain are,” he said. “Sure, now it affects a small number of children, but if we allow the outbreak to continue and infect tens and even hundreds of thousands, we will see health damages we are best to avoid at all costs.” 

So here’s what he’s advising should happen in Israel: 

Prof. Waxman said the first step Israel must take is to enforce the face mask mandate indoors, which he says is the most effective method to prevent infection. The second step is vaccination of all children over the age of 12, adding that this must be completed as quickly as possible. The third step is to ensure that those who need to enter quarantine do so, including travellers arriving at Ben Gurion Airport — both vaccinated and not. 

Compare this urgency with Britain’s reaction! There, an unidentified source made this remarkable assertion about the virus to the Mail:

It will run through the unvaccinated and the single-dosed, but because such vast numbers of people now have antibodies and can resist it, it will then start falling off because it will run out of people to infect. 

But in Israel, where a somewhat vaster number have already been fully vaccinated, it certainly hasn’t run out of people to infect.

The real reason behind Boris Johnson’s “if not now, when?” misappropriation of Hillel the Elder to justify this abandonment of caution is the driving anxiety that an autumn crisis might capsize the NHS. Since that is thought unlikely to happen during the remaining weeks of the summer, the need to open up the economy now tips the scales against the need to prevent an uncontrollable rise in infection. Which is why even the government’s chief medical officer, Professor Whitty, says he supports opening up now.

But for actual people, the risk of getting infected will now become  greater. Lifting restrictions such as social distancing and mask-wearing will put at risk millions who are vulnerable from compromised immune systems or chronic and other serious conditions.

And of course, what’s considered so unthinkable that it’s not even being talked about is not lifting restrictions until any winter crisis has passed. Yes, that would be awful. But opening up now risks having to re-impose restrictions if so many become ill that the NHS risks becoming overwhelmed before winter arrives.

Rather than the government facing up to these unpalatable facts, Javid said people must now take responsibility for their own level of restrictions and that the country would have to “learn to live with Covid and find ways to cope with it – just as we already do with flu”.

This is beyond asinine. The flu isn’t nearly as infectious, it doesn’t risk mutating into potentially more lethal variants, it doesn’t cause long term chronic symptoms and it doesn’t present such a serious threat to so many people with other health problems. 

Not surprisingly, in response to this irresponsible nonsense one SAGE member, Professor Stephen Reicher, an expert on behavioural psychology, exploded:

It is frightening to have a Health Secretary who still thinks Covid is flu, who is unconcerned at levels of infection, who doesn’t realise that those who do best for health also do best for the economy, who wants to ditch all protections while only half of us are vaccinated. Above all, it is frightening to have a Health Secretary who wants to make all protections a matter of personal choice when the key message of the pandemic is “this isn’t an ‘I’ thing, it’s a ‘we’ thing”. Your behaviour affects my health. Get your head around the “we” concept.

But  “the ‘we’ thing” cuts no ice with the government, for which all that matters is the NHS thing. And for a significant minority among the public, who are either incapable of grasping that the alternative to bad stuff happening now may be even worse stuff happening in future, or who think the whole pandemic crisis was manufactured by that raving red tyrant Boris Johnson to seize control of people’s lives, “the ‘we’ thing” seems to send them screaming for the hills.

These people have loudly opposed every single measure taken to prevent the spread of Covid-19. They were against social distancing, against lockdowns, against masks, against vaccines. They claimed that every such measure was a sinister state grab of people’s freedom. Scoffing at the all too well-founded observation by Professor Whitty that “long Covid” was a cause for serious concern, they have dismissed the evidence of chronic conditions resulting from some Covid infections as yet another plot for permanent state control by this apparent Machiavelli of medicine (who has now been offered police protection because of the times he has been menaced in public). 

And if as a result of the very opening-up that these people have been stridently demanding for the past 16 months the rate of serious disease from the virus rises so fast that restrictions are re-introduced, they will instantly scream that this is proof positive of the plot to turn Britain into a fascist dictatorship. Indeed, they are already claiming just that about SAGE’s sombre warnings. 

And the fact that the majority of the public are understandably nervous about what’s happening and want the government to act more cautiously merely prompts the libertarian crowd to treat that public with lip-curling contempt and disdain.

They thus display precisely the characteristic to which many of these same folk have spent years rightly objecting when it manifests itself on the ideologically blinkered left — allowing the force of an idea to drive out evidence and rationality and, ignoring the reality in front of their eyes, sneering at their opponents for being stupid, sheep-like and enemies of the good.

Despite these histrionics, the fact remains that Boris Johnson has embarked on a reckless gamble with people’s lives and health. Let’s hope for everyone’s sake that he gets away with it.

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