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Much of the focus of Westminster was on a particular fish supper in Brussels. But is Boris Johnson fiddling with Brexit, while home burns with Covid? Despite the vaccine breakthrough, Wednesday’s evidence to MPs from Chris Whitty and Sir Patrick Vallance was certainly a sobering reminder that this virus is very much alive.
The chief medical officer and chief scientific adviser took part in a lengthy and typically fascinating session of the joint Commons science and tech and health committees, chaired by former cabinet ministers Greg Clark and Jeremy Hunt (both of whom have in recent months done a superb job at getting answers on policy, and in some cases changing it in real time).
We learned lots, from the lack of “hard evidence” for a 10pm curfew to the revelation that the Pakistani community has suffered disproportionately in the second wave (and Black and south Indian communities less so). The MPs were also told that the UK would have three or four different vaccines in play by next summer. Whitty further cautioned that making tier areas too small would inevitably lead to them being swamped with the virus.
Most striking however was the way both Whitty and Vallance expressed deep concern that the new year could see a third wave surge in Covid cases. “We’re all very nervous about January and February,” is how Whitty put it. Crucially, Vallance admitted explicitly for the first time that Boris Johnson’s decision to allow Christmas relaxation of the rules would lead to “an increase in numbers”.
The chief scientist probably meant “numbers” of cases, but given that Labour MP Zara Sultana’s question was actually about both “transmission and more deaths”, it’s possible he could also have been signalling that the festive easing of household mixing would indeed have fatal consequences.
And the latest statistics again looked worrying. Case numbers and hospitalisations have edged up again and we know as night follows day that that results in more deaths down the line. The third wave may have already started. Imagine how big it could be in January after alcohol-fuelled family gatherings round the turkey and crackers?
London’s stats now look so bad that Sadiq Khan pleaded with residents to do more to keep to the rules or face a real prospect of going into Tier 3 next week. Sadly, the Mayor’s warning already feels too late.
Next Wednesday, December 16, is the date of the “review” of the current tiers in England and it could certainly spell bad news for many. Essex and Surrey could enter the highest tier as well as the capital, and Kent shows no sign of coming out of it. In Wales, the first minister on Wednesday claimed his “firebreak” had worked (and it did indeed pull the curve down) but cases now seem out of control and he’ll be desperately hoping the new 6pm hospitality curfew works.
Perhaps the most alarming graph is the one showing that hospital admissions in London actually rose steadily throughout the second lockdown. If even “Tier 3 plus” didn’t work, why should Tier 3? Vallance suggested that in fact tough lockdowns (normally) worked because they were easier to understand and communicate. “The adherence seemed to be actually much much greater in Tier 3 than it was in lower tiers because of actually people understood things better,” he said.
The two scientists stressed that the majority of the public are still sticking to the rules, but it does feel like a substantial minority are not. Not enough people are isolating either, so Wales’ new policy to cut quarantine from 14 days to 10 days will be an interesting test of whether the shorter period boosts compliance.
It’s important to note that the third wave, just like the second wave, is not a uniquely UK phenomenon. France, Portugal, Switzerland, Belgium are all seeing a levelling off recent drops in cases or the start of a rise. Is this about public fatigue of restrictions, or colder temperatures finally forcing more people indoors for longer? Is there some other factor we’re all missing?
Even in Germany, the stand out success story of the first wave in Europe, cases and deaths are climbing with frightening speed. Angela Merkel pleaded with Germans not to crowd queues for waffles and mulled wine stalls and urged them to isolate before meeting grandparents. Germany’s cases have soared despite hospitality closures, though shops and schools are open.
Speaking of European neighbours, perhaps the most valuable part of the Whitty-Valance session came when the chief medical officer warned against thinking there was a perfect defence system for Covid. “You end up with some kind of variation of the Maginot Line: very expensive, doesn’t work,” he said, referring to the doomed French fortresses that failed to halt Hitler’s advance in World War Two.
Still, Whitty said the UK could learn lessons from Germany (interestingly, he felt comparisons with far east countries were less valuable) and its impressive contact tracing system and extensive testing network. More generally, he said on some things the science had changed (like on masks) but in many areas the failures in Britain were down to a lack of data. Most importantly, he said, to get that data (for example people entering the UK from Europe in March), you need testing capacity at scale.
“If we had the capacity on testing now, [back] then [in the spring], we’d have come to very different conclusions using exactly the same science. One of the big learnings I would have is we’ve really, really got to build our capacity,” he said. Vallance added that a lack of contact tracing capability was “a big point”. Referring to testing failures in both Ebola and Covid, Whitty concluded that fixing this was vital for any future pandemic. “We’ve been caught out twice now with lack of testing and I think three times would be too many.”
That sounded very much like an admission that although England now had a large testing capacity, its test-and-trace system remains a long way from ready. Add in the current strength of Covid cases right now, and it’s no wonder the boffins are nervous as we head to Christmas.