The prime minister continues to hide behind the successful vaccine rollout while pretending the pandemic is over
Last week, government sources told the media that the UK’s winter plan was tantamount to the thoroughly debunked policy of herd immunity. So, I asked the vaccines minister in the Commons to confirm if this was true. Unsurprisingly, she evaded the question, claiming that the UK “continues to lead the world globally”. If she’s talking about infections, she may have a point.
Back in August, the All-Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) on coronavirus warned how hastily dropping all restrictions at once in the summer could lead to high infection rates. We knew that this, alongside increased winter pressure, would spell disaster. Two months later, daily infections are unforgivably high, as are hospitalisations and, tragically, deaths. Already reeling from the last 18 months, the NHS is at risk of a Covid crisis. Again.
So, it does seem rather strange to describe the UK as a “world leader”. But this government is unwilling to face up to reality. We’ve seen it time and again during this pandemic: it favours quick political gains over scientific competency. Even now, at such a pivotal moment, the prime minister continues to hide behind the NHS’s successful vaccine rollout while undermining their hard work by pretending the pandemic is over.
By failing to control case numbers, the government is making the need for mitigation measures more likely.
But it may already be too little too late. With 18 months’ worth of elective surgery backlog, and resourcing issues still unaddressed, the NHS has been left shamefully vulnerable as we head into what may be its toughest winter yet.
This week the government suggested that a move to Plan B – which could include measures such as Covid passports and making face masks compulsory again – would cost the economy between £11bn and £18bn. They are presenting it as a decision between saving lives or livelihoods. But it’s a false choice. If cases stay low, fewer people will have to isolate, and there will be more confidence in the economy. The Delta variant has also shown us that the vaccine is not a silver bullet. People are still getting infected, and with the risks associated with long Covid, the long-term impact on health and wealth is deeply worrying.
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Instead, the government should be taking a cautious approach. It needs to limit infections and reduce transmission, rather than pinning all its hopes on the vaccine. If these hopes are ill-founded, we could find ourselves facing a seriously dangerous winter.
We did not need to find ourselves here again. Our current uncertainty is caused by a lack of clear government policy. The so-called “winter plan” was never much of a plan at all, but a vague description of what the government might do if and when the pandemic got out of control. It was reactive rather than proactive. This is despite the APPG on coronavirus making countless recommendations over the past year on measures that they could take. By failing to consider them, we have ended up in a repeat of this strange Whitehall ritual, where Christmas could again be cancelled for the sake of summer.
But, as we seem to be saying all too often with this government, we are where we are and it is not too late to turn this around if – and only if – ministers listen to what frontline healthcare workers are desperately telling them.
Layla Moran is the Lib Dem MP for Oxford West and Abingdon