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Boris Johnson Covid press conference

Boris Johnson Covid press conference. Photo: Andrew Parsons / No 10 Downing Street / Flickr / CC BY-NC-ND 2.0, license linked at bottom of article

The government's inaction is responsible for the delay in lifting lockdown restrictions which could have been prevented, argues Terina Hine

There were no surprises at the PM’s latest Coronavirus press conference: “Freedom Day” as it had been dubbed, was cancelled, and the Delta variant originally identified in India blamed. Of course it’s thanks to Delta that we are witnessing a third wave; nothing whatsoever to do with government inaction or our cavalier Prime Minister.

First detected in India in late March 2021 it quickly became apparent to health officials that the new variant was spreading at a surprising rate. And as the UK learned to its detriment last autumn, greater transmissibility translates to more hospitalisations and deaths.

So what did our government do? Having locked down late while watching the rapid spread of our own homegrown variant did they spring into urgent action? No, they did absolutely nothing.

Early April saw India with four times as many Covid cases than its neighbour Pakistan, but it was Pakistan that went onto the UK’s Red List, preventing travellers from entering Britain.

For almost a month it was business as usual. Even after Delta was detected in the UK, flights to and from India continued. The Times estimated that over 20,000 people entered the UK from India during this period.

Now the UK has the highest number of Delta/Indian variant cases outside India. But for those who suggest our lack of action was due to Boris Johnson’s desire to meet India’s prime minister Modi for a post-Brexit trade deal, Michael Gove was on the air this morning to set us straight. Apparently such accusations are "specious nonsense”; Johnson would “never put the health of the country at risk” for a trade deal.

Only a week ago, while the exponential spread of the Delta variant in the North-East and the modelling were suggesting otherwise, the Prime Minister was stating he could see nothing in the data to suggest “Freedom Day” would be postponed. And even now vaccinations are the only measures being used to slow the spread.

Michael Gove says he is “pretty confident” this will be the last delay to ending all restrictions, but this is far from certain. As the NHS is suffering from burnout the next wave is approaching.

According to SPI-M modelling the Delta variant has a natural R-number of 7 (that’s the number of people an infected person infects, assuming no countermeasures are in place). This means to achieve herd immunity 85% of the population would need to be fully immune. This is simply not possible in the short-medium term.

Dr Rupert Beale of the Crick Institute said that even if everyone is double jabbed Delta is transmissible enough and vaccine-resistant enough to remain in circulation “for the next year at least”. Fully vaccinated people are protected from severe disease, but no vaccine provides 100% protection, and most of the population are not fully vaccinated nor will they be for some time. There is a high chance we will witness hundreds more needless deaths a day before summer is out.

And as Delta spreads here and the virus spreads through the unvaccinated world, new variants will almost certainly mutate.

People have every right to be angry about the mess we are in, about the likely deaths and hospitalisations as well as the continuation of restrictions which will severely impact on businesses and jobs. It was entirely predictable and entirely preventable.

Pubs, restaurants and theatres will continue to struggle with reduced numbers and offices will remain only partially occupied as the edict to work from home where possible is extended. Nightclubs and live music venues remain closed.

At the end of June the ban on commercial evictions ends yet for many businesses their quarterly rents will be due. Businesses are in rent arrears by an estimated £6bn due to pandemic related closure - this will continue to rise and if current protection from eviction is not extended many will be forced to close.

On 1 July employers will have to contribute 10% towards furlough payments, by August this rises to 20% - many will simply not be able to pay.

Yet Rishi Sunak tells us there will be no further government assistance.

We still have a situation, after all this time, where track and trace is not working, where only 50% of people with symptoms are able to isolate, and masks are no longer worn in schools where the virus is rapidly spreading. It is a failing system. This catalogue of failure is beyond incompetence; it is criminally negligent. And we are all paying the price.

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