With an alarming rise in the infection rate, radical measures are required to combat coronavirus, argues Alex Snowdon
Coronavirus is currently resurgent in the UK. Case numbers are rising. There is a clear pattern based on looking at the last couple of weeks.
This means that we urgently have to suppress, and ultimately eliminate, the virus. We need a Zero-Covid strategy focused on eliminating Covid-19.
At this important junction, it is useful to briefly clarify where we are at, where things are going, and what can be done to stop the virus ripping through society again.
Yesterday's daily figure was well over 3,000. This isn't a blip – the total has been moving up for the last week or two.
For the first time since the initial rise of the virus in March, we have a clear pattern of rising infections.
The R rate has just officially been estimated at 1-1.2. Anything above around 1 – even slightly – indicates exponential growth. A significantly higher R number, like the 1.7 estimated by a new Imperial College study, means rapid exponential growth.
The Imperial researchers say that numbers are currently doubling every eight days. If that is correct – and nothing serious is done to mitigate it – then the number of daily new cases forty days from now will be thirty-two times the current figure. That's around 100,000 cases a day.
The virus will spread - and kill
For now, the rates of hospitalisation and death remain low (though with tentative signs that they are creeping up). This is primarily because the virus is overwhelmingly spreading among younger age groups.
In the last week, the number of cases among 20-24 year olds was higher than the total for everyone aged 60 or over. The numbers among over-80s have been extremely low in recent weeks.
This will change. We don't know how much or how quickly it will change, but a sharp rise in raw numbers is bound to see some demographic spread in who is infected.
When that happens, hospital admissions will rise. Many more people will die.
Even if the Imperial estimates prove overly alarming, the direction of travel is clear. By the beginning of winter, we will be back to infections happening on a massive scale. There will be many more people dying than we have seen during a period in which it is largely younger people becoming infected.
Why numbers are rising
Most of this increase cannot be explained by the full reopening of schools, considering the typical time lag of several days between infection and reporting. So the numbers are likely to rise further as a result of school reopening, given that hundreds of school-based cases have already been reported.
Full school reopening is also accelerating the push back to the workplaces, as parents head back to work. This has been boosted by the government's explicit – and highly irresponsible – mission to get those who are working from home back to the office.
We also face the prospect of massive numbers of students soon being concentrated in university campuses: packed into lecture theatres together, living in shared accommodation, socialising together, and in many instances travelling home to families regularly. This is the age group where case numbers are already at their highest.
The existing rise is driven by a number of factors. The general drive to get people back in the workplace is clearly one. There is evidence that Rishi Sunak's flagship 'Eat Out to Help Out' scheme is another
The wider 'return to normality' rhetoric from government has also encouraged the kind of behaviour that the virus thrives on. Mixed messaging has generated confusion, cynicism and sometimes reckless behaviour.
Change of direction needed
What are the practical implications of all this? The central point underpinning everything is the need for a change of direction geared towards eliminating coronavirus.
That means reimposing some of the earlier restrictions. If this is done effectively – in conjunction with other measures – it can make a decisive difference.
Otherwise we face repeatedly having half-baked partial reimposition of restrictions over a long period of time. That is a false economy as well as inadequate in terms of public health.
There needs to be, as I argued last week, a ramping up of mass testing and tracing. This includes routine and systematic testing in schools.
There should be online learning for university students instead of a mass return to campus. We need a move toward blended learning for older secondary and post-16 students, thereby reducing the numbers in schools and colleges at any one time.
Funding into schools for extra staff and space is essential. But there also has to be a willingness to temporarily close schools when outbreaks occur. This isn't happening enough.
There should be a halt to the push back to workplaces, with people working from home if able to. This can be accompanied by economic support for any small businesses negatively affected.
Financial support and security for workers is fundamental. That includes the extension of furlough to provide a safety net for millions of workers. Full guaranteed sick pay for all is crucial too. That applies to working parents of children sent home from school as well as workers who have to self-isolate.
A further extension of the ban on evictions is also essential. This ought to be part of a wider package to ensure housing security.
Some areas with high levels of deprivation are suffering particularly badly. Funding directed to poorer areas, to provide all necessary practical support, is urgently required.
Half-baked measures, mixed measures and complacency are not good enough. A new spike is happening – and that necessitates a sharp change of direction.
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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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