Lost in the Abyss of Covid-19, the UK Struggles to Emerge
Tuesday, January 26, 2021
Johanna Ross, journalist based in Edinburgh, Scotland.
It was reported on Monday that the UK may be past the peak of the second Covid wave, as it saw the lowest daily rise in coronavirus cases so far this year. 22,195 new cases were announced, compared to yesterday’s figure of 30,004 and last Monday’s figure of 37,535. Another 592 deaths were announced, bringing the total to 98,531 since the beginning of the pandemic – the highest death toll in Europe.
Some experts have suggested we are now over the worst of this second phase of the Covid-19 pandemic in Britain, but it is too early to celebrate. Last week we saw record numbers of daily deaths to Covid-19 (a staggering 1810 on Wednesday) with a total of 8500 by Friday: that’s a 14.1% increase on the previous week. You also have to take into account the ‘weekend factor’; it has been said that a lag takes place over the weekend as the figures on deaths and hospitalisations work their way through the system. As a result, figures announced on Mondays are artificially low, while on Tuesday the figures are higher than expected. Therefore the seemingly low death rate recorded today must be taken with a pinch of salt.
Indeed, the government is still wary, emphasising that there are no plans to ease restrictions any time soon. There are concerns about the high numbers of patients still in hospital. The number of new admissions seems to have levelled off – but at a worrying high rate – almost 4000 are being admitted per day. This is four times the amount of patients that the National Health Service would normally be accepting for respiratory conditions at this time of year. Health Minister Matt Hancock stressed at Monday’s press conference that it was ‘not a moment to ease up’ as there are ‘more people on ventilators than at any time in this whole pandemic’ – 4076 according to his data. He said the priority was now ‘to get that case rate down’.
Like in other parts of the world, all hopes are being placed on the vaccination programme. Mr Hancock said that four out of five of people over the age of 80 had been given the vaccine and that nearly 6.6 million people had been vaccinated. He boasted that 200 people are given the vaccine per minute in the UK. Indeed the immunisation programme in Britain has been handled somewhat like a military operation, as not only medical facilities have been transformed into vaccination centres, but chemists, supermarkets and even a cinema. Retired nurses have been asked to come back to help with the gigantean task of inoculating the entire population.
Reservations are being made about the decision to vaccinate strictly according to age group, however. The thinking behind it is of course to protect the most vulnerable, but it comes at a price: the young, healthy population is forced to endure a longer lockdown and all the negative consequences of this. Teachers have signed a petition complaining that they should be given the vaccine as a priority, so that schools can re-open. Although children seem to have suffered less from Covid-19, teachers have been in a vulnerable position as their pupils can be carriers of the virus without realising they have it. Education Secretary Gavin Williamson has said however that there are no plans to vaccinate teachers as a group in the near future. This could mean that younger staff won’t be immunised till the autumn, which is just dragging out this period of uncertainty.
There are concerns over what this all means for childrens’ mental health as they miss out on socialising with their peers and are forced to stay at home, some in unsafe domestic environments. Children also have varied access to technology, which can severely hamper their ability to cope with home-schooling tasks. Education committee chair, Robert Halfon, criticised the government’s priorities, stating that it was focusing on health and the economy, and forgetting about education, which is vital as it is ‘the coming generation’. According to the Daily Mail he said ‘I’m not a lockdown sceptic – I voted for all of the Government measures – but I am a permanent school-down sceptic…We’re creating a ‘have and have not’ society with some children doing remote learning and disadvantaged children doing much less.’
Others are sympathetic to Halfon’s position. Backbencher Tom Tugendhat has been quoted as saying ‘Close the borders, vaccinate the teachers, open the schools!’. By closing the borders, it is referring to the government’s policy of keeping its borders open throughout the pandemic, which has of course exposed it not only to new cases, but also to new strains of coronavirus. It recently emerged that Priti Patel, Home Secretary, was in favour of shutting down UK borders back in March 2020, when the virus took hold in Britain, but was reportedly overruled by Prime Minister Boris Johnson. At the moment, anyone arriving in the UK must provide evidence of a negative test and should self-isolate for 10 days. This of course is not something that can be enforced. The government is now considering New Zealand and Australia’s approach whereby hotels are used for quarantine purposes. In any case, given the UK’s abysmal record to date in dealing with the pandemic and its appallingly high death rate, a stronger stance on border control can only be sensible.
Former Foreign Minister Jeremy Hunt has said the biggest obstacle the country faces in combating Covid is in fact people not self-isolating when they have symptoms of the virus. This has prompted the government to give out a £500 payment to people with Covid who cannot normally work from home. According to The Guardian newspaper this could cost the government up to ‘£453m a week, 12 times the cost of the current system’. It’s yet another financial burden on a nation which is building up a debt like never before. In December last year government debt surged to a staggering £2.1 trillion.
Taking economic repercussions into account, it will be years before the UK emerges from the abyss of this never-ending pandemic.
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