16/07/2021 21:13 BST | Updated 17/07/2021 08:11 BST

The PM Predicted The Case Curve, But Will He Carry The Can For July’s Covid Chaos?

As disruption spreads from workplaces to holidays, Test and Trace in firing line again

Steve ParsonsPA

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Predictions in politics are a dangerous game, as everyone has hopefully learned in recent years. But predictions in pandemics can be uncannily accurate, and the latest figures on the number of Covid cases in the UK are bang in line with forecasts.

The 51,870 cases recorded on Friday bear out Boris Johnson’s own sombre warning just under two weeks ago. “We are seeing cases rise fairly rapidly,” he told us. “There could be 50,000 cases detected per day by the 19th.”

Of course our fantastic vaccine rollout means the key chart to watch is the number of hospitalisations. But the number of infections (cases) is now close to outstripping the number of injections (jabs). And while hospitalisations are nowhere near the levels of January, they are still very concerning. 

On Thursday, Chris Whitty said those hospital admissions were doubling every three weeks and could hit “scary numbers” soon. Well, as self-styled ‘Covid centrist’ maths prof Oliver Johnson points out, we are now looking at a doubling of hospitalisations every two weeks. Which is scary indeed.

For some, July 19 is a distraction from the fact that most of the damage was done several weeks ago. It’s arguable that if the borders had been closed earlier to India, the UK would have bought time to get to mid-September with every adult double jabbed and cases still low. Labour has yet to convince the public of that so far.

The key thing is that Whitty and chief scientist Patrick Vallance have given their blessing to the Monday’s unlocking, albeit with the need for strong warnings for the public not to ditch masks or working from home. Moreover, NHS England’s medical director Stephen Powis recently gave the PM a dose of political inoculation by saying the NHS could cope even with this third wave.

It’s the sheer number of forced isolations from the NHS App that is really causing a headache for No.10. With soaring numbers of schoolchildren, factory and health workers ordered to quarantine, the trigger appy virus is disrupting the economy and education. 

The school holidays offer some respite but with cases and isolation on track to keep soaring, even summer breaks within the UK will be cancelled. Overseas trips look iffy too. It all went Pete Tong for young people banking on a Balearic beat this week, as Majorca and other islands were put back on the government’s amber list.

Tonight’s news that double-vaccinated British travellers returning from France will still face a 10-day quarantine from Monday will add to the gloom.

The armed forces are among the latest casualties, with 5,200 personnel “pinged”. But most importantly of all, some hospitals are now on their knees because of Covid admissions but because of NHS staff (most of whom were double jabbed ages ago) told to isolate after contacts with others. 

Although there has been talk about exempting staff if patient care is at risk, no hospitals have been sent explicit guidance on those lines. The Royal College of Anaesthetists and the Faculty of Intensive Care Medicine on Friday urged an exemption, but their sense of urgency is so far not matched by any government announcement.

Lots of people would like to bring forward the August 16 date when double-jabbed people can avoid self-isolation if they test negative. Daily test-and-release as an alternative to quarantine does have real merit, but it only works if you have enough lateral flow and PCR tests. It’s worth remembering that the very reason the government held off until August 16 was a fear that it just wouldn’t have enough tests. That fear was made real this week as many areas simply ran out. 

Test and Trace’s lack of capacity, given the many billions spent on it, could end up being the real cause of a ruined summer, not just for the double jabbed but also those who end up with long covid or worse. Commons science and tech committee chairman Greg Clark tells me on this week’s Week In Westminster (aired on Saturday) that the latest blunder is unacceptable. 

With Dido Harding no longer around to blame, will ministers start pointing the finger at her replacement Jenny Harries? Or will they perhaps take on some of the responsibility themselves?

With some MPs and staff pinged in recent days (the Press Gallery too, my own office was officially ‘closed’ with Covid on Friday), SW1 is not immune from the “pingdemic” either. Given all the disruption, it will look rather odd next week if MPs cram into the Commons chamber hugger mugger, simply to give Boris Johnson a rousing send-off at the last PMQs before recess. 

The current disruption was not just predictable, but predicted. That doesn’t make it any less painful politically, even with the backing of the scientists. Claiming the mantle of Captain Foresight may therefore backfire on the PM, if the public abandons the forgiving mood it has held to date.

All it takes is for one minister to blurt out that a certain number of long Covid cases or even deaths were ‘a price worth paying’ for wider immunity, and it could be a cruel, cruel summer indeed.