Boris Johnson Boris Johnson. Photo: Andrew Parsons / No 10 Downing Street / Flickr / CC BY-NC-ND 2.0, license linked at bottom of article

Once again the government has put people’s lives unnecessarily at risk with its criminal inaction, writes Terina Hine

Omicron cases are doubling every two to three days, according to the government’s scientific advisers. Doubling at this rate means it is inevitable that the new variant will become dominant within weeks, and that by January there will be well over a million new cases. Talk about deja vu.

Without knowing how severe the new variant is, ministers have decided to take a targeted and proportionate approach”. While in Scotland, Nicola Sturgeon is encouraging home working where possible from now until at least mid-January, in England we have new travel restrictions – restrictions described by the WHO as futile. From Tuesday all travellers over 12 must have a pre-departure negative PCR test, but as community transmission is rampant in the UK the horse has already bolted – we are well on the way to having more Omicron cases than the countries on our travel red list.

So why is there no move to implement Plan B? According to Deputy Prime Minister Dominic Raab, the vaccine programme has been such a roaring success it will save us from costly restrictions. Early in the year the UK did have an impressive vaccine rollout, but more recently less so. Italy, Belgium, the Netherlands, France and Spain all have higher vaccination rates than the UK and Germany’s is about the same.

The booster rollout, which was to be put “on steroids” over the weekend, actually slowed down. By Monday night the UK had boosted 2.6 million in the preceding week, the government target was 3.5 million. Over a week ago Boris Johnson announced the time between second vaccine and booster would be reduced by half, but the programme has yet to be altered – those who try to book are met with a “you are not eligible” notification. And yesterday it was revealed that only a third of housebound people have received their booster vaccine.

As for the PM’s promise of vaccine centres popping up like Christmas trees” there is little sign so far. Take Hull for example, where vaccine coverage is below the national average, there are no walk-in booster clinics and no plans to introduce them. In Peterborough, over 1,000 people were turned away from a vaccine centre at the weekend due to a lack of staff. And many are still being asked to drive for miles to get their jab – only an option if you have a car.

It is hardly surprising that more than a week after Omicron was detected many in government are worrying that things are not heading in the right direction. Even Health Secretary Sajid Javid admitted that the new variant has the potential to “knock us off our road to recovery”.

Once again the blame game has started: each public health body blames the next and ministers blame as many as possible. But one thing is for sure, the vast majority of the public want to be vaccinated and boosted.

We know that Omicron has already spread across the whole country, that there are far more cases than officially reported (less than 50% of testing centres have the capability of detecting the new variant without further sequencing). But while the jury is out on the severity of the new variant, scientists are now confident that Omicron is more transmissible than Delta, and even within a heavily vaccinated population where most will hopefully get away with just a mild illness, more transmittable means more infections leading to increased hospitalisation and death.

Here in the UK, any increase in hospitalisation has the potential to tip the NHS into crisis. In the last two months alone more than 13,000 operations have been cancelled. Health officials are saying that just a small spike in hospitalisations will cause a huge increase in cancelations and stretch intensive care units to breaking point.

The good news is that while Omicron may be spreading fast, weekly Covid deaths have fallen below 1,000 for the first time in five weeks. Imagine writing that sentence 18 months ago – 1,000 Covid deaths a week for five weeks, and it’s hardly news.

So far in the pandemic the UK has recorded 130,000 excess deaths. This is as scandalous as it was avoidable – avoidable if vaccine patents had been lifted, if lockdowns had been properly and quickly implemented, if support was given for isolation and ventilation in public buildings made a priority. Instead, we have Omicron, just in time for Christmas.

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