Way back in March last year, when there were 46 UK deaths a day from Covid, Boris Johnson sounded flip, glib and ill-suited to the demands of statesmanship suddenly thrust upon him. “I think, looking at it all, that we can turn the tide within the next 12 weeks and I’m absolutely confident that we can send coronavirus packing in this country...”
With this week’s passing of the 100,000 deaths mark, that infamous remark jars even more. Bereaved families and friends know all too well that the PM didn’t send the virus packing. A second wave, turning into a third wave has since hit the country like a tsunami, each bigger than the last.
Yet the lockdown used to suppress that first wave last year did work. Although deaths were still running at 146 a day by the time of Johnson’s 12-week deadline, they were heading downwards and nowhere near the toll seen at the height of the first stage of the pandemic. They take time, but all those social distancing restrictions proved effective.
One suspects the PM would never utter the same phraseology again (though I wouldn’t bet my garden shed on it). But today there are the first real signs that the tide is indeed turning and the flow of pain and misery is being reversed. For the first time in a long time, all the key lights on the government dashboard are flashing green, not red: cases, hospitalisations and even deaths.
Case numbers continued their steep drop of recent days, down 29% week on week. Even the latest REACT Imperial College survey showed a fall in the number of asymptomatic and symptomatic cases. As for people in hospital, we saw the biggest daily fall in Covid patients since the start of the entire pandemic (1,491 down on the day, 11% week on week), with all areas of the country finally seeing decreases.
Of course, deaths are still perilously high and as Chris Whitty warned this week they could stay high for some time. There will be thousands, possible tens of thousands, more before we get to summer. But there was a glimmer of hope that fatalities may be levelling off (1,239 today was down a tiny fraction on the seven-day average).
There was more good news, finally, from Test and Trace too. Its stats today showed a big jump in test turnaround times within 24 hours (up from 31% a fortnight ago to 53.7% last week and 70.8% today). It’s still not the 100% the PM promised by last June, yet that is significant progress. On the measure of getting a result ‘next day’, the figure is an impressive 93.8%.
It’s unclear if the improvement is because of extra lab capacity freed up by fewer cases, though I’m told by insiders one factor is all the hard work on new autumn processes and systems finally paying off. Whatever the cause, if the change is sustainable, that means lots more chains of transmission being broken early.
Another hopeful development was the news that the LamPORE saliva test has a really high sensitivity and specificity. With each mobile lab able to deliver up to 2,000 rapid test results a day, that could prove a powerful weapon in our arsenal to add to lateral flow tests (whose impact was underlined by a new Oxford study) and PCRs.
On vaccines, there was tentative evidence that the Pfizer jab works on the South African variant. And a brand new vaccine made by French firm Valneva looks likely to get UK approval soon. Away from the row over whether Johnson’s trip to Scotland was “essential” or not, the new Valneva factory in Livingston underlined the smart forward planning by Matt Hancock and the Vaccines Task Force last summer.
Speaking of which, the hot news tonight is that UK phase three trials of the Novavax Covid-19 vaccine have found it demonstrated 89.3% efficacy against the virus. The UK has ordered 60 million doses and though it still needs approval by the regulator, it promises yet more jabs in arms in the near future.
It wasn’t all good news on the vaccine front today, and the latest vaccination numbers are nowhere near last week’s. We were warned there would be supply bumps, yet unless things ramp up quickly again soon, the PM could miss not just his target to offer all care home residents the jab by the end of the month (ie this Sunday night), but even his February 15 target for all over-70s. Reports of minority ethnic staff in care homes and even NHS hospitals refusing the jab remain worrying.
Germany’s refusal to approve the AstraZeneca jab for over-65s may concern some here too, though coming weeks will reveal whether UK pensioners have had sufficient protection. The fact remains that the EU is so desperate for the AZ vaccine that it’s resorting to spot checks on the Belgian factory and strange threats to curb exports when in reality its problem may be it failed to nail down a cast-iron contract.
The Times report today that the UK may even end up giving away its surplus vaccine was another testimony to Hancock’s forward planning. No.10 was asked seven times today whether we could even give some spares to the EU before all our population was covered and seven times refused to answer.
The UK’s biotech success is indeed something to be proud of. As Simon Stevens told MPs yesterday (at the end of a fascinating session), the NHS sitting alongside the life sciences industry makes for a unique combination that offers hope of high skilled, well paid jobs of the future in many communities. We should “view the NHS, not only hopefully as a highly responsive high quality health service, but as part of the economic dynamism that this country needs”.
Health and the economy are two sides of the same coin in this pandemic. Which is why, for all the progress today, it remains frustrating to many that Johnson is deaf to calls to pay people more to self isolate. Jeremy Hunt rightly told him that the cost is much cheaper than longer lockdowns or having to extend furlough. Yet a dismissive PM effectively told the public they should isolate out of duty, even if left out of pocket.
The tide may be turning, slowly in some parts of the waterfront, quickly in others. It could turn even more rapidly if more state support was given, and some Tory MPs are hopeful we may yet get it. We’ve had several reasons to be cheerful today, another one wouldn’t do any harm at all.