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

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

A rushed ‘return to normal’ is driving up the infection rates and, increasingly, the death rate, writes Alex Snowdon 

September has seen a return to exponential growth in coronavirus infection numbers in the UK. Yesterday’s daily infections figure was the highest to date: at the start of September it seemed unthinkable that we could soon be looking at nearly 7000 official cases a day. 

August’s ‘Eat Out to Help Out’ probably played its part. The full reopening of schools and the push back to the workplaces have definitely made a difference. Any new restrictions, though, are focused on socialising rather than the worlds of work and education, which (it seems) cannot be interfered with. 

Education is a frontline 

The new term for universities will further increase the risks. Most students belong to the age group which currently has the highest infection rates. There are already early indications that returning to shared student accommodation - never mind lecture theatres - is set to be a driver of virus transmission. 

Universities in Glasgow and Liverpool have already reported mass outbreaks and had to take emergency measures to prevent further spread. The lecturers’ union UCU has rightly demanded that there is no face-to-face teaching until test-and-trace measures are operating effectively. 

We already know from the crisis in schools that inadequate testing massively undermines efforts to ‘return to normal’ while avoiding a rise in infections. Headteachers are reporting serious difficulties with getting staff and students tested, while also complaining about poor and inconsistent guidance from Public Health England when outbreaks occur. 

Boris Johnson has been forced to backtrack on urging workplaces to reopen and pushing workers back to the office. We should not forget that it was merely a few weeks ago that the prime minister was loudly insisting that everyone gets back to the office to support the economy. 

Trade unions like PCS, which organises in the civil service, were absolutely right to oppose those calls. They have been vindicated by the soaring numbers.

Expert warnings 

The Tories now face opposition, however, from a more unexpected source than the trade unions. The government’s own official experts are increasingly speaking out. 

This month has seen a series of warnings by various members of Sage, the advisory body of scientific and medical experts, about government policies. The criticisms have tended to focus on either the failures over testing and contact tracing or Johnson’s reluctance to adopt stricter lockdown restrictions. 

Professor Graham Medley, a Sage member and expert on infectious diseases modelling, told this morning’s BBC radio Today programme that the number of daily deaths will rise to 100 within four weeks. It is one of a number of warnings issued this week that deaths are starting to catch up with the rise in infections - and set to get much worse, very quickly. 

The latest daily figure of 34 is already a huge increase on the start of this month. There has, however, recently been a large gap between rising case numbers and the low level of deaths, largely explained by the virus primarily spreading among younger age groups. We are now seeing big increases in the numbers of hospital admissions and of deaths. 

Medley acknowledged that the rise to 100 daily deaths is probably now unavoidable, but he urged urgent action to stop it rising any higher. He suggested that death numbers will double at a rate of every ten days unless more serious action is taken immediately. This will mean hundreds of deaths every day by November. 

Must do better 

The government, without a coherent strategy, is currently reacting to new developments with half-baked measures. The local restrictions need to be replaced with a coherent national policy. Restrictions imposed nationwide are more easily understood by people, more likely to be respected, and far more effective at a time when infection rates are rising everywhere. 

Yet the much-heralded new guidelines announced by Johnson this week turned out to be woefully inadequate. A good start would be to halt universities returning to face-to-face teaching. This ought to be government policy, not a matter for individual institutions. The safety of students and staff should take priority over the interests of private landlords. 

There should be far greater willingness to close schools, with financial support for those (staff and parents alike) who are affected, to help suppress transmission in communities. This needs to be combined with a ramping up of coronavirus testing in schools: routine testing, with fast results, and easily available. 

Pubs should be closed altogether. A 10pm closing time is hopeless. Again, financial support should be directed by those who are affected. 

The Tories are still adopting policies that guarantee a false economy, with sectional and short-term business interests prioritised over longer-term needs. Take serious action now. It therefore won’t be necessary to repeatedly lapse back into lukewarm responses that damage the economy as well as affecting people’s wellbeing. 

A combination of mass testing and stronger restrictions is now essential. These developments must be nationally coordinated and have public health and well-being, not private profit, as the guiding principle. There also needs to be economic support to help those who are self-isolating or whose work is temporarily on hold while restrictions are in place. 

This week’s announcements from Boris Johnson and his chancellor, Rishi Sunak, are not nearly enough. We need to be pushing for more radical and immediate action.

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Alex Snowdon

Alex Snowdon

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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