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In my last WaughZone before Christmas, I suggested Boris Johnson may come to regret his latest claim that “the virus is being steadily defeated”. A lot has happened since then, not least the PM being forced into another late change of policy to tighten restrictions during and after the festive period.
Within days of my last piece, the rampaging reality of the new variant was brought home to me rather literally as I contracted Covid myself. The sight of those thick black lines (even a faint line is a positive) on the lateral flow test is enough to make any heart sink and, sure enough, the virus proceeded to wipe me out.
I was lucky enough to avoid hospitalisation (the paramedics were superb), but there are many relatively young and fit people who are now in intensive care, ramming just how contagious the virus has become. In a powerful BBC News report from Croydon Hospital tonight, consultant Dr Steven Vidgeon put it perfectly: “For someone who says ‘it’s a myth, it won’t affect me’, come and see 30- and 40-year-olds in intensive care with no guarantee we can get them out.”
Those tireless NHS staff really are the best of us as a nation. So too are the long queues of pensioners lining up in the cold and the rain, as many did today, to get their vaccination. Their stoic determination to get the jab is the most eloquent riposte to both the minority of anti-vaxxers and the larger group of “vaxx-hesitant” members of the public.
The PM today suggested that the government had a difficult job in balancing the good news of the vaccine rollout with the need to impress on people the necessity of following the public health rules. He talked of his worry that there was a “degree of false confidence, false complacency”, adding “when you look at what has happened in the NHS that complacency is not merited”.
Actually, I’m not convinced the wider public are complacent, as most appear to be doing their best to follow the sometimes confused messaging of the government. It was Johnson himself who came dangerously close to the complacency charge when he talked in December of it being “inhuman” to “cancel Christmas” and when he joked about the “toot of the bugle” of the vaccine cavalry.
In his press conference on Monday, Matt Hancock admitted his aim of getting 2.5 million people a week vaccinated over the next few weeks was “an ambitious, stretching but achievable target”. I suspect the key to that will not be the huge vaccination centres but more hospital hubs, GP surgeries and community pharmacies (remember it was only in 2016 that the Cameron government threatened to close thousands of pharmacies?) that are easier to access for those many over-70s whose travel is restricted to local bus journeys.
Chief medical officer Chris Whitty was also candid that the other main “limiting factor” will be just how many vaccine doses the UK actually gets from manufacturers. No.10 worryingly ducked the question when asked repeatedly today how many of the 4 million Pfizer doses had actually been delivered. Similarly, we have been told how many doses of other vaccines have been bought and ordered (and the numbers are impressive), yet not how many doses are actually in the hands of the NHS, and on what timetable.
Downing Street was similarly vague on exactly why the PM decided to travel seven miles to the Olympic Park in East London for a cycle. Given that two women were fined for travelling five miles for a walk (Derbyshire police tonight rescinded the fines and apologised), the Evening Standard story had echoes not just of Dominic “follow my instincts not the rules” Cummings, but also of David Cameron famously cycling to work with a chauffeur behind him carrying his shoes.
Hancock hinted that taking exercise with another person could be axed if the spirit and letter of the guidance was not upheld. ”If too many people keep breaking this rule then we are going to have to look at it,” he said. Still, the rules blame game is a perilous one to play in this pandemic, and appeals to individual responsibility pale compared to some of the structural problems that are in fact ministerial responsibilities.
That’s perhaps why the biggest hole in the government’s strategy today was exemplified by Rishi Sunak’s content-free statement to the Commons. Sunak had no new policies, only a warning that “we should expect the economy to get worse before it gets better”. Sounding like a bystander rather than a member of the government, the chancellor felt like he was treading water ahead of his March Budget. Yet if things are going to get worse, surely fresh measures can’t wait that long?
Sunak said nothing about extending the emergency Universal Credit uplift beyond April, a pledge that would offer real comfort to many whose worries will continue even after vaccinations bring relief in the Spring. Former George Osborne aide Rupert Harrison told me recently the Treasury could retain the uplift in April by “freezing the increase in nominal terms” and then allow it to be gradually eroded over a few years by inflation, but even that is a solution Sunak and Therese Coffey at the DWP have been silent on so far.
One study from the first lockdown showed that the most deprived in the UK were six times more likely to leave home and three times less likely to self-isolate – even though that they had the same desire as the better off to do so. It wasn’t a question of them not wanting to do the right thing, they simply couldn’t. It remains baffling why there isn’t a simple, generous isolation payment for all workers, even now.
As if to underline the deeper problems, at the very same minute that Matt Hancock began his No.10 press conference a worrying new report was published by the Resolution Foundation and Covid Realities Project, linking the health and financial costs of coronavirus.
The report, which should be required reading for all MPs, showed that a third of our poorest families have had their incomes squeezed by higher costs of food, energy and other bills. Having kids at home means more heating and meals, higher data and tech costs for home schooling, while avoiding public transport means having to use more expensive shops nearer home. These families are not saving money on takeaways, eating out, clothing and coffee shops, precisely because those were luxuries they didn’t have in the first place.
The ‘stay at home’ message has also exposed just what kind of home people are forced to stay in, with overcrowded and damp housing still a huge problem for too many. Contrast this with the stamp duty cut and home-improvement drives that have fuelled a boom in house prices (and yes house sales are still allowed in lockdown). The threat of a “K-shaped” recovery – an up line for the better off, a down line for the working poor – ought to be a mark of shame for any government that’s really committed to “levelling up” the country.
Similarly, a refusal to give a pay rise to all key workers seems a strange way to thank those who have been keeping the country afloat, from hard-pressed teachers to the armed forces helping with vaccination to firefighters currently driving ambulances. It remains baffling that the PM failed to give to English NHS staff the kind of £500 Christmas bonus handed by Nicola Sturgeon to their counterparts in Scotland last month.
Which brings us back to those NHS staff in Croydon tonight. One consultant said they were so exhausted by the first wave, the thought that “we are doing this again” was weighing heavily on them in this second, bigger tsunami of cases. The vaccination programme offers hope, but to really “build back better”, the government needs to take responsibility for tackling the many inequalities it has so far failed to address.