“Can one arrogant, privileged egotist fighting to save his job wish this global pandemic away?”

Joan Twelves asks some searching questions

 Remember when the Prime Minister repeatedly told us he was ‘following the science’? Remember those televised press conferences when he was flanked by the Chief Medical Officer and Chief Scientific Adviser providing the expert advice on what we all needed to know and do to protect ourselves and our loved ones from the deadly SARS-CoV-2 virus?

There was no press conference, no updates on the gov.uk website, no sign of Chris Whitty or Patrick Vallance, when the Prime Minister announced in Parliament on 9th February 2022 that he was planning to bring forward an end to England’s rules on self-isolation later this month.

‘Following the science’? But the scientists and medical experts of SAGE (Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies) didn’t meet until the day after this announcement. And by that time the press was reporting that it wouldn’t just be self-isolation that would end – the days of free testing and even the ‘gold standard’ ONS Coronavirus Infection Survey are limited.

Everyone around the world wants this pandemic to end, to be able to live without restrictions and to meet, love and touch without fear. That doesn’t necessarily mean a return to normal: for millions that normal isn’t something they have any desire to return to. But does that mean we abolish all measures? Is the pandemic over? Can 200 people dying every day in the UK just be written off? Or the over 2 million people currently sick with Covid?

Can one arrogant, privileged egotist fighting to save his job wish this global pandemic away?

Covid is no respecter of borders or British exceptionalism.

Nor is it now a ‘mild’ disease like a cold or the flu. For some fortunate people it’s not too bad. But others can end up facing months, years, even a lifetime of debilitating and chronic illness.

Testing is more than the inconvenience of sticking a swab up your nose to see whether you have Covid. As Professor Christina Pagel of Independent SAGE has said: “Without data we are blind.”

And that blindness could include no longer being able to determine whether the virus has mutated yet again, and what effect any new variants are having.

SAGE warned at that meeting the day after Johnson’s announcement that “new SARS-CoV-2 variants will continue to emerge… including variants that are less susceptible to current vaccines, resistant to antivirals, or are associated with altered disease severity… There is no reason why future dominant variants should be similarly or less severe than Omicron, which may be an exception in having lower severity. The next dominant variant in the UK (and internationally) could have similar pathogenicity to previous variants, such as Delta.”

Not being able to identify new variants is just one of the problems associated with Johnson’s plans to declare the pandemic over next week.

Allowing – indeed, encouraging – infectious people, many of whom will think they just have a cold, to mingle freely is a recipe for disaster. It takes us back to the early days of the pandemic when we had few tools to protect ourselves and others against infection, when key workers and those who could not afford to do otherwise were travelling to work in close contact with each other in poorly ventilated workplaces.

Remember Belly Mujinga, who died in April 2020 after being coughed and spat on at work in Victoria Station? Remember the deaths in care homes? Shopworkers already report problems with abusive, unmasked customers; they and other public-facing workers, especially those with unsympathetic employers or on low pay, will be at even greater risk once more if the legislation on self-isolation is abandoned.

The key difference between now and two years ago is of course the vaccines, of which I am a great fan and advocate. But Omicron has exposed the fact that vaccination on its own is not enough to protect us and stop community transmission. And SAGE is warning that “there is significant potential for transmission to increase if behaviours revert rapidly to pre-pandemic norms and mitigations are removed.”

A strategy of Vaccine-Plus, as advocated by Independent SAGE and campaigns such as Zero Covid, is essential. Protecting each other from infection through mask-wearing, good ventilation and effective contact tracing is hardly the restriction to our freedoms the right wing like to make out, especially not when only 65.6% of the UK population aged 12 and over have had the currently needed three doses, and the highly infectious BA.2 subvariant of Omicron is breaking through to push up case numbers again.

Official figures say one in 19 people are currently infectious. Go on the bus or to the pub or cinema and you’re likely to be alongside several people who may be unintentionally spreading the virus.

This is especially dangerous for those most at risk from infection, those millions of us designated “vulnerable” and those who live with us. Most at risk are those with weak or compromised immune systems who could become seriously ill or die if they catch Covid.

It is a commonly held misconception that those who are at risk are less likely to be in work or education, but this is most certainly not the case. Many will be key workers in retail, hospitality, transport, delivery, education, care homes and the NHS. Many will be children or parents, the groups with the highest infection rates at the moment. And those who can stay at home will be locking themselves down yet again, unable to enjoy any kind of fake freedom.

Not that the government seems to care about that. It stopped all support for shielders many months ago. Appeasing the Covid Recovery Group to keep the Prime Minister in power is the top priority, closely followed by the Tories’ ideological favourites: shrink the state support systems, blame everyone else, and make the poor pay.

The pandemic is not over, not in England, not in the UK, and not across the world. While the scientists work on new and better vaccines, the existing ones are saving lives and protecting against some of the worst illness.

But there is still a long way to go. 61.8% of the world population has received at least one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine, but only 10.6% of people in low-income countries have. This means the virus could continue to rampage through communities, mutating as it does so, and spreading rapidly across the world yet again.

The Prime Minister’s plan to declare an end to the pandemic has been met with outrage in many quarters. SAGE scientists can no longer be relied on to be onboard to back him up. Within minutes of the announcement, the Daily Mirror had called it out as the ‘dead cat’ it so obviously is. But it is a dangerous disease-carrying defunct feline which has to be stopped. At the very least, we must demand our MPs ensure self-isolation, testing and mask-wearing continue for as long as they are necessary protections. You can write to your MP here.

Joan Twelves is a community, trade union and Labour Party activist. She is a member of the Zero Covid Steering Committee and a former Leader of Lambeth Council. Her occasional blogs can be found at https://joantwelves.wordpress.com/

Zero Covid Coalition is organising a petition and an emergency online meeting at 6:30pm on February 24th. Register here.

Image: Boris Johnson. Source: https://securityconference.org/en/medialibrary/asset/boris-johnson-1851-17-02-2017/. Author: Kuhlmann /MSC,  licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Germany license.

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