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Paul Vallely: UK is in the grip of Covid complacency

24 September 2021

The pandemic is still with us, but many seem not to care, observes Paul Vallely


Passengers on a Northern Line London Underground train this month. Some wear masks, others do not

Passengers on a Northern Line London Underground train this month. Some wear masks, others do not

IT SEEMED like a good idea at the time. A year ago, my brother discovered that the band who played the music for his first dance with his new bride at his wedding, 30 years ago, was performing live on stage in York. A few of us decided that we would make a family weekend of it. Surely, we reasoned without much thought, Covid-19 will all be sorted out by October 2021. Two weeks before the performance, it feels anything but sorted.

Lots of people clearly take a very different view. On the streets and in the shops, social distancing is all but over. On a recent train to Cardiff, one third of the carriage was maskless, in defiance of the law in Wales. A friend who went to see the football at Old Trafford said that he counted three masks among the 75,000-strong crowd. MPs on the government backbenches display the same insouciance, which is perhaps why one of their number, Sir Peter Bone, contracted Covid recently.

The television news may have stopped making the number of daily Covid deaths a big headline every day, but 1000 people are still dying of the virus every week. The Economist has recently suggested that official statistics are serious underestimates, and that the real figures are double or treble the numbers that most governments publish.

Of course, vaccines have slashed hospital admissions rates — and statistics suggest that the unvaccinated are far more likely to die than the double-jabbed. But Covid-19 previously came in waves, with peaks and troughs, as new infections alternated with lockdowns. Today, in contrast, we are faced with a slow-growing plateau.

The UK today has one of the highest hospitalisation rates in the world. A few countries in Europe are doing worse on Covid death rates, says Professor Christina Pagel, the director of the Clinical Operational Research Unit at University College London, which applies operational research and mathematics to healthcare problems. The latest figures do not yet reflect the return of teenagers to school, and we are one of the countries doing the least to reduce transmission in places of education.

The British Medical Association this week warned that hospital staff are “battle-weary and exhausted”. The NHS is underfunded and short of nearly 50,000 doctors in comparison with EU averages. Already, some scientists are talking about the need for another “firebreak” lockdown around October half-term, something that the Health Secretary, Sajid Javid, has said that he is not considering “at this point”.

The scientists of the independent SAGE group have just released a nine-point plan to keep winter Covid cases down, while keeping the economy open. Its recommendations are hardly radical. They include better ventilation in public spaces, continuing working from home, and requiring “effective and certified masks” to be worn in crowded indoor spaces and on public transport. The Government has rejected it. It feels like déjà vu all over again, as Yogi Berra put it.

I’ve just been on the website for the concert in York. Proof of vaccination and the wearing of masks are not required. Perhaps I’m over-cautious, but I think I’ll stick to wandering around that beautiful city and eating in well-ventilated restaurants. I wonder what the Covid compliance procedures might be for Sunday services in the Minster?

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