By Karam Bales
Victory over Covid! The pandemic is over and we are the first European country to transition to endemic Covid. At least this is what the Government is claiming, showing a complete lack of understanding of what endemic means.
Time to celebrate then? Steve Baker MP (pictured) certainly thought so, posting pictures of himself popping champagne onto Twitter a few hours after the Prime Minister’s statement to the House and the press briefing where Chris Whitty and Patrick Vallance said enough for us to be able to read between the lines that this is a victory over science.
It’s a victory for the opaquely funded lobbyists and academics behind the Great Barrington Declaration, a victory for the media that attacked SAGE while continuing to platform those who claimed we already had herd immunity in 2020 and that a second wave was impossible. It’s a victory for libertarian values, that individual freedoms take precedence over social responsibility, where avoiding personal inconvenience is deemed more important than protecting the lives of those at greater risk from Covid.
SAGE documents from their meeting on 10th February are available, including a paper from SPI-B (Scientific Pandemic Insights Group on Behaviours) and one on scenarios for viral evolution. The advice to the Government repeatedly restated the importance of isolation, testing and surveillance. Removing these is predicted to cause disproportionate impact on certain communities and the disadvantaged, and yet the Government has ignored this advice.
It’s telling how Johnson and ministers have answered questions regarding those at greater risk. “People still need to be cautious and manage their personal risk” appears to be the stock answer provided to them by the Downing Street communications team. Follow up questions regarding how at-risk groups are supposed to do this haven’t received an adequate answer.
The truth, as it has been throughout the pandemic, is that workers don’t have the power to manage their personal risk, their employers do. The removal of payments to isolate leaves many workers in a precarious position, particularly those in low paid and insecure work.
With the winds of a cost of living crisis storm picking up speed, many workers already having to choose between eating or heating won’t be able to afford to isolate. The Government will ignore this, hiding behind its guidance that isolation is still recommended, and these families will also be left in the unenviable position of having to take food off the table if they wish to test themselves.
The UK Government has chosen a purely pharmaceutical strategy of vaccines, treatments and antivirals. These will be reserved for the over 75s and a narrowly defined vulnerable group who will also have access to testing. A large number of clinically vulnerable people have been omitted from this group. Currently they won’t be offered a second booster as the first wanes and if they can’t afford testing, it appears they won’t be able to get an early diagnosis to access courses of anti-virals that must be started shortly after infection to be effective.
It also sets a precedent. No other condition requires payment for a diagnostic test. Once people have to pay for a Covid test, will this then be extended to HIV tests, blood tests, etc? There is also the question of how those who develop long Covid will be able to access support if they don’t have evidence of a positive test to prove they had Covid, an issue many infected in the first wave are still struggling with.
Providing free testing for the vulnerable group appears to be a token gesture, a pretence of protection. It’s the people the vulnerable interact with who require testing, so this won’t protect them from infection. However it should increase the likelihood of accessing antivirals. After much cabinet wrangling, surveillance testing will continue, without free testing. This will be our main means of tracking transmission levels, although we don’t have the details to know how far this vital tool will be cut back.
How quickly our response can be scaled back up will be a matter of life or death in the event of a new variant. Considering a new variant will have to out-compete the already super-transmissible Omicron, there won’t be much time.
The SAGE paper on viral evolution bursts one of the greatest deceptions being perpetrated at the moment, namely the idea that more transmissible variants will be less severe. Until Omicron, all previous variants of concern were more transmissible and more severe than the original Wuhan strain.
It’s quite possible that Omicron is a lucky fluke that lulls us into a fake sense of security, which is why SAGE recommended antivirals be used carefully, so as not to cause the virus to become resistant to the treatments, because these medicines are the last line of defence if a more vaccine-evasive variant emerges with higher severity. The scientific community is already looking with concern at the Omicron BA2 sub-lineage dominant in Denmark. Japanese lab experiments have shown cell fusion, a mechanism used by Delta but not Omicron, which is associated with increased severity.
The Government accepts there will be more variants but are leaving us incredibly vulnerable to the emergence of a more dangerous iteration of the virus. This is not a plan for living with Covid; it is a plan to ignore it and hope it goes away.
Any serious plan for living with Covid would have included a clean air act, regulating and supporting ventilation and air filtration across workplaces. This would reduce transmission and proactively add a layer of protection against future variants not impacted by increased vaccine evasion.
As Johnson isn’t following SAGE’s advice, it’s important to ask whose advice he is following. It’s not outrageous to wonder if the decision to not just declare the pandemic over, but to end it earlier than originally planned, was done to placate Conservative MPs into not sending in letters of no confidence. The removal of all measures has long been a demand of the Covid Recovery Group (CRG) and Sir Graham Brady, the chair of the influential 1922.
Without any focus on effective non-restrictive measures like clean air, it appears the Government’s strategy is relying on “booster infections” to top up antibody levels, as was suggested in JCVI (Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation) meetings, when they initially decided not to recommend vaccination for 12-15 year olds. Sunetra Gupta, one of the authors of the pro-infection Great Barrington Declaration has recently rebranded herd immunity as constant reinfection. This appears to be the strategy the Government has embraced – considering Rishi Sunak, said to have been the cabinet member most opposed to continuing measures like free testing, was responsible for arranging a meeting with Gupta, Carl Heneghan, Robert Dingwall and Sweden’s Anders Tegnell in August 2020 which resulted in our late response to the Alpha variant.
The CRG, Brady and a section of the media have been coordinating with the Great Barrington Declaration and associated organisations for more than a year, and this is the culmination of their efforts. This is their victory of ideology over science, and this is why Steve Baker, Vice Chair of the CRG, was popping champagne corks. This is his victory: the abandonment of the vulnerable in society and a permanent increase in health inequality.
Even if a more deadly variant doesn’t emerge, what will the impact of constant reinfection be on the health of the population? The Government and its supporters have sought to distract from the inconvenience of long Covid, yet there is also an increasing body of evidence that even infections with mild symptoms can result in damage to the adaptive immune system. The T-Cell immunologist Anthony Leonardi has described this as feeding forward, where infection increases the risk of harm from future infection.
We have no idea what the long term consequences will be of regular reinfection. What happens to our children in Covid-rampant schools when they are onto their fifth or tenth reinfection?
The Government might want to be done with Covid, but it doesn’t mean Covid is done with us.
Karam Bales is a former member of the National Education Union Executive, writing in a personal capacity.
Image: Steve Baker MP. Source: https://members-api.parliament.uk/api/Members/4064/Portrait?cropType=ThreeTwo. Author: Richard Townshend, licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported license.
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