London ambulance London ambulance. Photo: Eddie / Flickr / CC BY-ND 2.0, license linked at bottom of article

The government has once again allowed Covid to run rampant with their criminal inaction, argues Terina Hine

In September the Chief Scientific Adviser Patrick Vallance told us the government should “go hard and go early” with new coronavirus restrictions if there was a surge in cases this autumn. Now we have a surge, yet Downing Street does nothing.

On Monday, just under 50,000 people tested positive for Covid-19, the highest number since July. Daily hospitalisations were up by 10% on the previous week, and most tragic of all the weekly death toll rose by almost 15%. Last week 911 people needlessly lost their lives to Covid.

Cases, hospital admissions and deaths are significantly higher in the UK than in comparable Western European countries, and the gap is widening. The UK death rate is three times higher than in other major European countries and UK hospital admissions have risen to six times the European rate.

Experts, those pesky scientists that keep telling the government what it doesn’t want to hear, blame the growth on a number of factors: the UK’s rapid removal of restrictions such as mask wearing and social distancing in the summer, the lack of measures in schools, low vaccination rates in under-18s and the waning of vaccine-based immunity.

Although the vaccine rollout in the UK was initially rapid and efficient, it now lags behind other major European countries – with overall coverage rates considerably lower than in countries such as Spain, Portugal and Denmark. As the UK was early to vaccinate its most vulnerable, a booster programme is now required, but the rollout is painfully slow. However the main difference lies with the low vaccination rates in the under-18s, and the consequence is an out of control epidemic in classrooms.

The fortnightly Department for Education attendance statistics show ever-increasing numbers of absences – last Thursday the DfE estimated that 209,000 children were unable to go to school because of Covid – while the school leaders’ union NAHT reports that many schools are struggling to remain open.

Analysis by the Press Association show that vaccine uptake in 12-15 year olds is as low as 5%, and only 15 local authorities have managed to give a first jab to at least a quarter of this age cohort. Yesterday the government gave in to pressure from the medical and scientific community and agreed to allow 12-15 year olds to make appointments at vaccination centres.

And now, as if all this wasn’t bad enough, we are told that a new, potentially 10-15% more transmittable variant, AY.4.2, is on the rise in England. Unsurprising given the high levels of Covid cases.

Professor Neil Ferguson from Sage has warned the public to be cautious: “we have currently higher levels of infection in the community than we’ve almost ever had during the pandemic – for the last three or four months we’ve been up at well over 1% of the population infected at any point in time.” But it is the government that should be called on to act, and to act now.

The combination of Covid and flu could so easily overwhelm our hospitals – the NHS is already experiencing peak winter pressure – and it is not yet winter. There is an enormous backlog of patients, staff are exhausted and demoralised; the NHS is already at breaking point, it won’t take much more for it to be broken.

July 19 was ‘Freedom Day’, when society was reopened and we more or less went back to normal. But in July less than half of the population of England was fully vaccinated and case numbers were high in many regions. While the most vulnerable were protected the virus was far from under control. By September, when schools reopened with few or no protective measures, the virus was free to rampage through educational settings, and now as half-term approaches, infections are spreading into the community with the result of almost 1,000 deaths per week – 1,000 tragic and avoidable deaths.

Yet again this was all avoidable, and yes, we have been here before. But while we cannot turn back the clock, is it really too much to ask that the government learn from its mistakes, listen to its advisers, and take notice of what is happening in other countries. No one wants restrictions, but without them we could end up in another lockdown and with another cancelled Christmas. Déjà vu indeed.

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