The awful milestone of 40,000 officially recorded deaths shows why the government is reckless in lifting the lockdown, writes Alex Snowdon
40,000 deaths in the official figures would, back in March, have seemed to everyone like a shocking proposition. We looked in horror at Italy, where hundreds were dying every day. We glanced at reports from Spain and felt anxious as its daily toll rose too.
When the lockdown began on 23 March, the daily death toll was still in double figures. Today’s daily figure was 357.
We know the real total figure is higher - probably around 60,000. This is based on data showing excess deaths.
We know that the U.K. has the worst death toll in Europe. It has a worse per-population total than the US. More than one tenth of all global deaths from coronavirus are in the UK, a country with under one hundredth of the world’s population.
The lockdown was established too late. Retrospective modelling has suggested that the numbers infected grew from a little over 300,000 on 16 March to 1.5 million when Boris Johnson announced the lockdown one week later. If he had acted on the information and warnings he had and announced the lockdown just a week earlier, it would have made a massive difference. We would have followed Germany’s trajectory instead of Italy’s.
While the figures in Italy and Spain have come down significantly, the UK figures are falling more slowly. The lockdown has clearly had a huge impact on rates of transmission in the community, but not yet to the extent that the virus is suppressed. Lifting lockdown restrictions too early is making that much harder. And it runs the risk of a return to rapid growth in infections.
Last week it was estimated that the UK is seeing 54,000 new infections a week - nearly 8000 a day. Today it was announced that France is thought to be down to 1000 new cases daily. That’s the level required before lockdown is lifted in any serious way (and a lower R number is also essential).
Leading scientists, health experts and epidemiologists have repeatedly and urgently warned that lifting restrictions too early is exceptionally dangerous. This was the message from a number of members of Sage, the government’s advisory body, last weekend in relation to wider reopening of schools. Yet the government went ahead with its plans for schools.
A major push back to work is accelerating. Phase One commenced on 11 May and we have this week entered a new phase, despite the lack of scientific evidence supporting it. School reopening is central to that wider effort - it is about economic interests, not education or children’s wellbeing.
There have been fresh reports today about the R number, measuring rates of transmission. It is difficult to estimate this accurately, but it is widely thought that there has been no decrease over the last couple of weeks. There is no steady, uncomplicated decline as forecast by the government.
Pushing down transmission levels needs to be combined with rolling out a mass testing and tracing system. That has been blighted with problems. The latest reports are that the new tracing app may not be fully ready for months.
These are the latest twists in a saga of government failure. Unsurprisingly, the public mood has turned against Johnson and his government. There will be further backlash if premature lifting of measures gives a reboot to the pandemic.
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Alex Snowdon is a Counterfire activist in Newcastle. He is active in the Palestine Solidarity Campaign, Stop the War Coalition and the National Education Union.
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