Positive vaccine news cannot absolve the government of tens of thousands of avoidable deaths it's responsible for, argues Terina Hine
The UK is truly world-beating - but not in the way ministers had hoped.
Yesterday saw Britain tragically topping the global league table of Covid deaths. Questioned about this catastrophic failure the government dismissed the validity of international comparisons and hid behind the spin of the vaccination rollout.
In the last 24 hours, a staggering 1,610 people lost their lives to Covid.
While cabinet minister Brendon Lewis was unable to answer questions about this deeply concerning record, Conservative Party ads had no problem making international vaccine comparisons, boasting the UK has “administered more vaccine doses than Italy, France, Germany and Spain combined”.
The vaccine rollout is unquestionably a positive story amongst the catalogue of disasters that is the government’s pandemic response. The speedy rollout is a huge tribute to the NHS primary care teams. But we must not let it colour our view on how this government, obsessed with individual freedoms and right-wing dogma, has handled the pandemic.
We must not let triumphant headlines about the UK’s world-beating vaccine programme mask the huge number of avoidable deaths it has presided over.
Nor should they hide the postcode lottery of vaccine delivery - with some areas moving on to vaccinate over 70s while in other regions extremely vulnerable over 80s are still waiting to be contacted.
Nor gloss over questions surrounding the UK’s revised vaccine strategy, in which the time between administering the first and second doses of the vaccine has increased from 21 days to 84, in order to maximise the number vaccinated with one dose as quickly as possible. The decision has divided researchers, with Pfizer-BioNTech saying they do not have evidence on immunity beyond 21 days of the first dose, and others raising concerns that people will resume normal life during the lengthy three-month gap before immunity is achieved.
And today there are leaked reports from Israel which suggest that the first Pfizer dose is less effective than originally thought, raising serious concerns about the UK’s approach.
Unfortunately for the UK, our vaccine strategy remains our only strategy.
Yet once cases are reduced we will still need to test, trace and isolate. Had local public health teams been used rather than Deloitte management consultants perhaps we would have both a functioning and cost-effective system in place by now. But we have neither: test results still fail to be returned within 24 hours, and rates of contact tracing and isolation remain below what is required, while the cost continues to spiral.
This week’s Public Accounts Committee was informed that over 900 Deloitte consultants are receiving £1,000 per day to operate Dido Harding’s failing system. That is almost £1m per day paid to management consultants.
The programme has a massive £22bn budget, over 90% of which is for testing alone - not tracing, and certainly not isolating. The bulk of tests currently being purchased are lateral flow tests - the tests which detect just 48% of covid infections in asymptomatic people, leaving the remaining 52% of Covid positive people circulating and spreading the virus.
These tests are being proposed for use in schools and by employers and retailers, so that the economy and shops may reopen and children return to the classroom.
But by providing false confidence they will enable the virus to spread once again. And what about contact tracing and helping workers isolate? Isolation support and sick pay could reduce infections far more than this £15bn worth of inadequate testing.
Anecdotal reports indicate significant numbers of Covid patients are workers on zero-hours contracts - workers who cannot work from home and who have no option but to continue working if sick. So it is hardly surprising that the latest ONS data reveal that income level is a major indicator of covid mortality. According to the ONS mortality rates in England are 2.5 times greater in the most deprived areas than in the least deprived.
But a government which does not wish to maintain the £20 uplift in Universal Credit, who resisted providing free school meals to hungry children, who refuse to close construction sites, clearly care little for the lives of the working poor.
Thanks to the third national lockdown we are beginning to see case numbers and hospitalisations fall, soon there should be a corresponding decline in the number of Covid deaths. Even with its many unknowns, the vaccine will reduce cases, hospitalisations and deaths. But we know from bitter experience that as soon as numbers being to fall the siren voices calling for an end to lockdown will be amplified. We must resist their call to open up the economy without a covid plan. We need to fight for a zero-Covid strategy, or we will maintain our number one spot in the worst league table of all.
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