An "acceptable" level of deaths?

The British government's attitude to the pandemic still suggests a brutal utilitarianism

After months of telling itself that the pandemic was all but over in the UK, Britain is now succumbing to incipient hysteria.

The statistics are indeed alarming. Today 49,139 new cases of Covid-19 were recorded, up 14.9 per cent from last week, and 179 Covid deaths, up 31.6 per cent. On October 16, there were 869 Covid hospitalisations, up 15.3 per cent from the previous week. Although these numbers are a fraction of the hospitalisation and death toll at the peak of Britain’s second wave in January, fears are now growing of a rise that will overwhelm the health service.

This has led to calls for restrictions to be reimposed — the return of mandatory mask wearing, working from home and social distancing measures, and with the threat of a possible return to lockdown being unconvincingly denied by ministers.

Matthew Taylor, chief executive of the NHS Confederation, said the health service was under intense pressure already. It was now facing a perfect storm of new Covid cases, regular winter epidemics such as flu and the backlog of patients who have been deprived of normal treatment because of the pandemic. “I think the government needs to look at all those measures which science tells us can reduce the spread of the virus and further down the line the number of people going into hospital and dying,” he said. 

Cue cries of horror and outrage from those for whom the entire Covid emergency has been a plot by that arch-tyrant Boris Johnson to deprive people of their liberties, force them to be jabbed with a dangerous vaccine and destroy the economy — in common with dozens of other world leaders who are apparently all part of the same infernal conspiracy.

As regular readers will know, I have had the opportunity to observe at close quarters how the pandemic has been dealt with in Israel as well as in the UK. Over these past few months, I’ve been looking at Britain with amazement and concern. For it seemed to be complacently ignoring the red warnings urgently flashing at it from Israel’s experience.

Briefly, by around May Israel thought it had Covid-19 licked. Having been one of the first countries to vaccinate the vast majority of its eligible population, it relaxed a number of restrictions when new cases tumbled to fewer than around two dozen a day and took its eye off the ball. 

What happened then was a baleful confluence of two hitherto unforeseen developments. The first was that the effectiveness of the vaccine was wearing off steeply. Having been early to vaccinate, Israel was now losing vaccine protection earlier than other countries. And at that very moment the Delta variant of the virus, which was vastly more infectious than previous strains, hit the country.

The result was a precipitous rise in infections, including among those who had been vaccinated but whose protection had now diminished. Mostly, though, those vaccinated patients weren’t now dying or being admitted to hospital with serious symptoms. They were becoming ill, but not as seriously as would have been the case had they not been vaccinated. 

The patients who were starting to clog up the hospital Covid wards with serious illness were mostly the young who hadn’t been vaccinated at all. And although the number of hospitalised patients was rising far more slowly than when the pandemic had been at its height, simple mathematics meant that, unless this growth was halted, the hospitals would in due course become overwhelmed.

The Israeli government then made a fast decision to zap this new wave by a third “booster” vaccination — and it went hell for leather to administer this once again at high speed to everyone other than the very youngest. When it came up against a stubborn million or so who weren’t taking up the booster shot, it made bold use of the green vaccine “passport” which it had deployed very effectively as an incentive to get vaccinated in the first such drive. This time, it simply cancelled the passport for everyone — and re-issued it only to those who had had the booster shot or received their second dose within the previous six months.

To general huge relief, this all worked. Uptake of the booster soared, and daily cases have now tumbled to a three month low. The booster shot has been shown to deliver a very high measure of protection; and of those now being hospitalised for Covid, some 80 cent are unvaccinated. Vaccination saved the day once again.

Now it looks as if Britain, which started to vaccinate later than Israel, is experiencing the same problem of waning vaccine effectiveness. And a sub-variant of Delta has arrived and is spreading, which may also be helping drive up the number of cases.

But unlike Israel, Britain has been sluggish with its booster shots, offering them so far only to certain vulnerable groups. And not even all of these have received it. While the efficacy of the first two jabs dwindles, there are nearly a third fewer mass vaccination hubs currently in operation than when the original two-dose vaccine programme was at its peak in April.

The public appears to be prepared to forgive Boris Johnson for his mistakes during the pandemic because of the efficiency of that original vaccination scheme which was seen to have enabled a return to something approaching normal life. Yet now, with the third booster shot proving essential, Britain has failed to make it generally available fast enough.

The public’s deep reluctance to return to Covid restrictions is entirely understandable. No-one wants them; and vaccination is the way to beat Covid while avoiding them.  

However, a significant number of people have fallen for unfounded scare stories about vaccination and regard it, along with lockdown and other restrictions, as some kind of attack on their health and human rights.

They seize upon the fact that some of those who have had two vaccine shots are nevertheless getting Covid as apparent proof that “the vaccines don’t work” — ignoring the fact that it was always known that their effectiveness would wane after about six months, and also ignoring the fact that those who contracted Covid despite their two jabs would have been far more seriously ill or died had they not had them.

Along with this fatuous claim about the “useless” vaccine, a number of people have also swallowed hair-raising declarations that the vaccines are poisoning us all (or other similarly unfounded assertions or theories). Plucking such statements from the internet, they believe that because those making them sport scientific or medical qualifications they must know what they’re talking about. In fact, these claims fall apart under serious scrutiny, and these “experts” turn out to be charlatans or opportunists or both.

This inability to discriminate between science and quackery has fuelled another staggering non-sequitur — the belief that because scientists’ claim of catastrophic man-made global warming owes more to ideology than to science, it therefore follows that what scientists say about the Covid pandemic is similarly a conspiracy against the public interest. Does one really have to explain why the one doesn’t follow from the other?

Vaccines are never without risk. There’s always a very small number of people who suffer adverse effects from vaccines for various reasons, because vaccination always involves a balance of harms. The test for any vaccine is whether the harm it prevents overwhelmingly outweighs any harm it may do. There is no evidence that the Covid vaccines available in the west may result in any greater harm than any other. Infinitely more damage is done to people’s health from Covid itself, including serious long- Covid symptoms and death. 

People are recycling these terrifying claims about the vaccine “poison” mostly because they chime with other anxieties they may have — some of them very reasonable — about the still inadequate understanding of this virus and about the accelerated speed of vaccine testing.

For example, much has been made of concerns first flagged up in Israel that the vaccine causes myocarditis in young men — but further research has established that these ill-effects have been overwhelmingly minor. A study published in the New England Journal of Medicine earlier this month showed that only 142 out of 5 million vaccinated Israelis suffered such a vaccine-related problem. A far greater number are much more likely to get myocarditis from Covid itself.

But a yet more disturbing attitude to the pandemic is being persistently displayed by Britain’s governing class. A report published last week by the Commons science and technology committee and its health and social care committee ripped into Britain’s early handling of the pandemic as one of the worst public health failures in UK history. The government’s “groupthink”, it said, involved a deliberately “slow and gradualist” approach to tackling the virus which meant the UK fared “significantly worse” than other countries.

The government’s initial slowness to lock down cost many lives. It was slow largely because it was fixated upon the idea of “herd immunity” — which broadly meant accepting that large numbers would die before the country as a whole built up enough immunity to provide a general level of protection. It was only when the government suddenly realised that vast and politically unacceptable numbers would die through the exponential growth of this infection that panic set in and the country was locked down.

Remarkably, Boris Johnson didn’t learn the necessary lesson and was again too slow to impose restrictions on two further occasions. As a result, the resulting lockdowns lasted longer than would otherwise have been necessary — and many more people also died.

That’s all bad enough. But what’s happening now seems to be — if not a return to a “herd immunity” strategy — the toleration of an “acceptable” level of death and serious disease from Covid. This is even though that level is very high — higher in fact than anywhere else in Europe.

From the start, the suspicion has been that the government has been less concerned with saving people’s lives than preventing the health service from being overwhelmed. The latter is undoubtedly a necessary and honourable goal — but only if the reason for it is concern for the welfare of the patients who need to be treated. 

But the current “acceptable” high level of Covid deaths suggests that this is not the case at all — that the concern is not with preventing avoidable loss of life but with protecting the NHS as a system. The government is only beginning to panic now because the evidence is growing that during next few weeks the NHS may become overwhelmed. And this implies a brutal utilitarian attitude which ultimately regards people’s lives as expendable while systems are sacrosanct. There can be no “acceptable” level of avoidable Covid deaths.

Israel, which has also been anxious to prevent hospitals being overwhelmed and is no less concerned than Britain to stop the terrible damage to the economy, education and other areas of life caused by the panoply of Covid restrictions, nevertheless regards every such avoidable death as both a tragedy and a national reproach. 

Makes a difference.

Recent posts

My most recent exclusive post for my premium subscribers is about America’s first task at the UN Human Rights Council to which it has returned. This is how the piece begins:

Melanie Phillips
America's first task at the UN Human Rights Council
The US has rejoined the UN Human Rights Council. This is a dismaying development — although, as such, par for the course from the Biden administration. It’s dismaying because the HRC is a disgrace: a permanent and obscene blot on whatever remains of the UN’s ostensible aim …
Read more

And you can read my most recent post that’s available to everyone, on the conspiracy theories that stalk the west on both sides of the political divide, by clicking here.

One more thing…

This is how my website works.

It has two subscription levels: my free service and the premium service.

Anyone can sign up to the free service on this website. You can of course unsubscribe at any time by clicking “unsubscribe” at the foot of each email.

Everyone on the free list will receive the full text of pieces I write for outlets such as the Jewish News Syndicate and the Jewish Chronicle, as well as other posts and links to my broadcasting work.

But why not subscribe to my premium service? For that you’ll also receive pieces that I write specially for my premium subscribers. Those articles will not be published elsewhere. They’ll arrive in your inbox as soon as I have written them.

There is a monthly fee of $6.99 for the premium service, or $70 for an annual subscription. Although the fee is charged in US dollars, you can sign up with any credit card. Just click on the “subscribe now” button below to see the available options for subscribing either to the premium or the free service.

A note on subscriptions

If you purchase a subscription to my site, you will be authorising a payment to my company Dirah Associates. In the past, that is the name that may have appeared on your credit card statement. In future, though, the charge should appear instead as Melanie Phillips.

And thank you for following my work.