Opinion: Winter is coming – why isn’t the PM taking weekly Covid advice from Sage?

Opinion: Winter is coming – why isn’t the PM taking weekly Covid advice from Sage?
Despite a world-leading vaccine programme, the UK death rate is still steadily climbing – the facts as they stand today are seasonal in their ghoulishness

How many lateral flow tests have you done this week? Britain is now firmly split into two camps. There are those for whom the fatigue of the last 18 months has won out over the fear, who travel and socialise freely without masks, worrying only a little, if at all, about what lies ahead. They’re not really testing anymore.

But there are just as many – those yet to contract the virus, those who are clinically vulnerable, or those who have children inside the broiling pit of germs that is an autumn classroom – who still live with a daily dose of anxiety. I’m sad to say I’m still in the latter camp. Sad because, although I feel I am a realist, it’s a miserable place to be. Every time I watch the news I’m convinced I feel a bit short of breath.

I don’t mean to criticise those who have psychologically moved on from the 2020 mindset. It’s understandable. Living with the pressure of constant vigilance and risk assessment is truly exhausting. Fearing the worst every time someone in the house sneezes chips steadily away at your sense of self. Wrestling a toddler or preschooler into taking a PCR is an endurance test in itself, and one that has to be repeated over and over and over.

It’s an absolute cliche to say we all want this to be over, but one that is beautifully illustrated by the muted criticism over Carrie Johnson’s Christmas childcare bubble. She may not have broken any Covid regulations, but for a family that has more than enough household help in Downing Street, it really didn’t smell good. So where was the outrage? The ire over Dominic Cummings’s Barnard Castle family birthday party feels a very long time ago.

And yet we can’t keep turning our heads away: the facts as they stand today are seasonal in their ghoulishness.

Despite a world-leading vaccine programme early this year, the UK death rate is still steadily climbing and the case rate is soaring. The most vulnerable have been double-vaccinated for more than six months and we know that their immunity is now dipping. That may already account for breakthrough infection and deaths.

It’s alarming to discover that, while all this is unfolding, the Sage group of experts has only met three times. Why? Unfathomably, it transpires that the government has not been asking for regular advice. Again, why?

Layla Moran, chair of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on coronavirus, has accused Boris Johnson of trying to hide behind the vaccine rollout. “He is undoing all of their hard work by proceeding with the careless attitude that this pandemic is over,” she said, adding: “The government must act or risk repeating the failures of last Christmas.” But act how?

A return to full lockdown is impractical and divisive, and won’t contain Covid in the long term. That, after all, is no longer the goal. It’s been ruled out by ministers, who have accepted the shift from pandemic to endemic status for the virus. But the request from NHS leaders for “Plan B” – for masks to be worn in enclosed spaces and on public transport, and a shift back to the expectation to work from home wherever possible – is pragmatic, not fearmongering.

The arrival of a new sub-variant of the Delta strain (which implausibly may be yet more transmissible) is a reminder that case rates do matter. The UK is becoming a human petri dish. It’s a terrible look, just when we’re busy rebuilding our global relationships after Brexit.

The problem for the anxious is our sense of confirmation bias. The warnings from the NHS sound like an air-raid siren, and the government seems complacent in the extreme. Last year, at almost exactly this time, we were told that a lockdown was unthinkable. Shortly afterwards, Christmas was abruptly cancelled and we entered what effectively became a six-month shut-in. It feels like we’re heading down the same path, even when we know rationally that we’re probably not.

How people feel truly matters, and not only for the nation’s psychological wellbeing, important though that is too. We know that those who feel very secure post-vaccination have given up on masks, and their behaviour is affecting case rates. They’ve stopped listening to the government’s updates because they feel we’re past the worst. They want to get on with their lives. Who can blame them? Those who still feel in considerable danger are angry at a government they believe (with some merit) to be deeply negligent – and importantly, they no longer trust any of the information the government is providing them with.

Two warring camps in the Covid battle blaming each other for the health and economic state of the nation isn’t going to help any of us get through the winter. What could help is greater public pressure to ask the right questions of the government.

Why isn’t the cabinet still taking weekly Covid advice from Sage experts, when Covid is the No 1 risk to the nation’s economic stability, even above Brexit? Why is the booster programme taking so long to roll out? When will children be fully vaccinated? Why aren’t teachers added, alongside NHS workers, to the booster scheme?

These are questions that need to be answered whether you’re an optimist or a pessimist about the winter that lies ahead. These questions may be the only thing that unifies us as we head towards Christmas. Boris Johnson and his government have limited time to answer them.

The graphs comparing our progress to that of our close European neighbours elicit a cringe of embarrassment. As for behaviour on the streets, the cabinet’s trust in the British people to act with caution and good sense was clearly misplaced. We are a nation that doesn’t care very much about our shopkeepers. As a population, we need rules; we’ve been left with none. The autumn spike that will lead to thousands more unnecessary deaths should not be coming as a surprise.


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