We look at the coronavirus situation in the UK this week – why the government is sticking to its roadmap at all costs, the potential danger of the B.1.617.2 variant (first detected in India), confusion about masks in schools, holidays abroad, and more...
First published in May 2021.
What is really at the heart of Government Covid-strategy?
All over the local media, we have read and heard about schools closing one after another because children are being infected with COVID-19 for the past weeks, long before PM Boris Johnson was set to ease the lockdown restrictions in England.
Complacency mustn’t rule. Whilst the British get vaccines and go on holidays, many other countries struggle to cope. There should not be one rule for some (people part or fully vaccinated) and a rule for others (those who have not been vaccinated yet or fear being vaccinated – who have nothing to do with anti-vaxxers).
And yet, you appear to see Health Secretary Matt Hancock putting the blame entirely on the feet of the residents in Bolton for the increase of cases identified with the B.1.617.2 variant. Some may wonder whether people with such attitudes should be in government. Empathy and fairness count for nothing for them. Have they not learnt anything yet?
Hancock rams it home to the vaccine hesitant: “Look at what has happened in Bolton: those who chose not to have the jab have ended up in hospital, some of them in intensive care. Vaccines save lives, Mr Speaker".— Tom Newton Dunn (@tnewtondunn) May 17, 2021
And what of schools, how are they coping with the changing landscape? The unions were very concerned about the government’s plan to relax the rules regarding face masks in secondary schools and colleges against health experts recommendations, and against even SAGE’s advice. And now? With the B.1.617.2 variant, what is the government going to do, and how will each school address the confusion created by this change? It won’t be easy, for a number of reasons, not least the problems it will cause for staff, parents and students. Let’s not forget that behaviour in schools depends on a consistent approach by staff, one that is clear and understood by all.
Health experts have been calling for more transparency on the B.1.617.2 variant spread within schools. What is the response from the government? ‘Nothing to see there.’ ‘Schools are safe.’
Professor Christina Pagel, a member of Independent Sage, was among a number of scientists who criticised the government’s messaging over the next stage of the exit from lockdown. In essence, the B1.617.2 variant has increased sharply in the UK in the past two weeks. People must use their best judgement about hugs and stopping masks in schools is reckless.
PM Boris Johnson. | Number 10
Roadmap to where exactly?
And so last week drew to a close with a further media briefing from Number 10 Downing Street, led by the Prime Minister. Ed Conway, from Sky News, presented some revealing charts relating to the importation and spread of the B1.617.2 variant. It again raised the question about the porous nature of the UK borders, and the failure of our leaders to get a grip.
A COVID-19 Genomics UK Consortium study published last year, suggested that “travel restrictions, through the implementation of ‘travel-corridors’, are effective in reducing the number of contacts per case based on observational data.”
Was it given enough consideration?
The PM’s media briefing followed a special meeting of SAGE that took place on 13 May 2021. Minutes and notes from the SAGE meeting were published the day after – an unusually swift turnaround of minutes that are often not published until several days, if not weeks, after taking place.
The scientific experts discussed in detail a range of issues relating to the spread of variants of concern. The warnings were clearly expressed in the very detailed notes. Notably, among many important expert observations was this one regarding the potential risks of continuing with the dates set out for stage 3 and stage 4 of the government roadmap exit strategy under certain circumstances.
Eighty-ninth SAGE meeting on COVID-19, 13 May 2021. | SAGE
SPI-M-O: Consensus Statement on COVID-19, 12 May 2021. | SAGE
PM Boris Johnson. | Number 10
Holidays abroad, should we go or should we stay?
Interesting times, for those willing to risk a holiday abroad. Although Health Secretary Matt Hancock has warned British holidaymakers to stay away from amber list countries such as Spain, Italy, France and Greece... even though... they can still visit them.
Health Sec. Matt Hancock. | Number 10
Only time will tell.
So, the government is committed to pushing ahead with its roadmap (data not dates, or should that really have been dates not data?). England’s stage 3 is right underway. The nation will be watching carefully over the coming week – as the government and SAGE watch too – the next Public Health England reports on the growing concerns about the transmissibility and impact of the SARS-CoV2 virus variants, especially B.1.617.2.
According to top scientist, epidemiologist, Professor John Edmunds, who sits on the Government’s SAGE committee of scientific advisors, “The new B.1.617.2 variant has ‘seeded quite widely’ and is expected to become the main strain.”
Time will tell. But to end on a more positive note from Professor Kailash Chand, Honorary Vice President of the BMA, “The world is in a reboot, there will be major upheavals and hurt and loss. We can only ease the pain with empathy, compassion and sharing.”
- Schools perplexed after PM's mask ruling goes against SAGE advice | Sec-Ed
- Is the government “following the data” on face coverings in schools? | the bmj
- SAGE 89 minutes: Coronavirus (COVID-19) response, 13 May 2021 | SAGE
- SPI-M-O: Consensus Statement on COVID-19, 12 May 2021 | SAGE
▫ Dr Joe Pajak, professional experience scientific research and development, principal of a community college, director of education, then director of a national children’s charity, trustee of a disability charity, and governor of an NHS foundation trust hospital.
▫ J.N. PAQUET, Author & Journalist, Editor of PMP Magazine.
[This piece was first published in PMP Magazine on 18 May 2021. | The authors write in a personal capacity.]
(Cover: Flickr/Number 10. - PM Boris Johnson in Downing Street. | 11 May 2021. / Licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.)