Hospital Photo: VILevi / Adobe Stock

The Tories’ mishandling of the pandemic has once again left us starting the year with the NHS and schools in crisis, writes Terina Hine

This new year, just like the last is all about surging Covid cases as school’s return after the Christmas break and hospitals struggle to cope. On Tuesday, 218,000 new positive cases were announced. After decades of underfunding and two years of the pandemic – whatever the severity of Omicron – it will be a mammoth task to keep schools open and prevent the NHS from being overwhelmed.

This year we hope that that schools remain open for more than a day. No one wants a return to online learning. And yet for all the rhetoric of classrooms being best for the child, thousands of school pupils will be sent home over the next month thanks to Tory recklessness and the government’s lack of planning.

Two years into the pandemic we have vaccines, better treatment, and possibly a less lethal variant of Covid, as well as far greater understanding of how the virus is spread, yet here we are again. For unfortunately we have the same PM, who in 2022 is even more in the clutches of the extreme rightwing of his party than he was a year ago.

Schools return this week facing the Herculean task of keeping students and teachers safe and learning. It was hard before the Christmas break, but it will be worse now. Covid case numbers have risen to over 200,000 for the first time – and that’s before the effect of New Year’s Eve celebrations and the return of schools is felt. So as the PM announces his intension to keep schools open, more and more will be forced to close.

Belatedly the government has agreed to recommend face coverings in secondary school classrooms and has kindly offered to supply 7,000 air filters – that’s 7,000 for 300,000 plus classrooms in England. So little, so late.

And although vaccinations are available to all secondary pupils, large numbers remain unvaccinated. As of 19 December only 50.3% of 12 to 15 year olds had been vaccinated at all. Even fewer have received two doses. And of course primary aged pupils are still not eligible. Children have the lowest rate of Covid-19 immunity in the UK, by a significant margin.

Then there’s the health service. Facing the winter pressures with the addition of Covid and unprecedented staff absences, the NHS confederation Chief Executive said on Monday that many parts of the system are “in a state of crisis”.

Boris Johnson’s warning that hospitals will come under “considerable” pressure in the coming months should be taken very seriously indeed. So far things are supposedly “manageable”  – obviously in a crisis management sort of way – and the impact of Omicron on hospital admissions is not expected to be fully realised for a week or two. Yet at least six NHS trusts have already declared critical incidents.

Initially most cases were in children and younger adults and most of the impact felt in cancelled Christmases and trains, dark theatres and hospitality staff shortages. But since Christmas, rates among the older age groups have been climbing, and this is now feeding into hospital admissions.

The crisis has spread beyond the capital (where cases are still rising) and hospital admissions currently stand at 15,000 - just below the peak of the first wave back in 2020. Hopefully this will not translate into a similar number of deaths.

The last few days have seen the share of admissions among those over 65 rise, and as Covid is more serious in this age group, medical teams expect an uptick in terms of length of stay and critical care bed usage. In the north, hospitals are reporting more than twice the level of admissions seen in London, with a staggering rise of 122% in just one week in the north-east and Yorkshire.

The new Covid variant may be less severe than its predecessors – as is often repeated by ministers and the media – but it is important to recognise that a less severe disease does not necessarily equate to less severe pressure. Less severe with greater volume can result in increased pressure.

Add to this the danger of massive staff absences, burnout, decades of underfunding and the fact that hospitals have less headroom this year than last as they attempt to work through a huge backlog, the possibility that the NHS will be overwhelmed by the the sheer number of cases seems more likely than ever.

Prepare for debates about what an “overwhelmed” NHS looks like. At todays press conference Johnson refused to say. Is it a slightly more extreme version of the usual winter crises or a complete meltdown of disaster movie proportions? I’m sure the right-wing Covid Recovery Group of MPs have their own definition ready and waiting.

When hospitals struggle to treat those with cancer or heart conditions, to treat stroke victims or those involved in accidents, the cost of the government’s infection based “light-touch” approach is likely to be very high indeed.

Children will once again miss out on their education and the pressure on the NHS will at best be immense. Having let cases surge out of control, the impact of Omicron will be far more severe in both schools and hospitals than the Covid stats alone are likely to reveal.

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