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I emerged from my son’s online “parents’ evening” just in time for the No.10 media briefing, only to find that I was still in school. Stand-in headteacher Priti Patel was leading the assembly and everyone was getting a stern lecture, particularly those (you know who you are) who held house parties during the coronavirus pandemic.
The school liaison officer, aka National Police Chiefs Council boss Martin Hewitt, set out how 150 people had attended a party in Hertfordshire and a further 40 at a house party in Brick Lane, east London. Head of biology, aka NHS London’s Vin Diwakar, chided everyone who had used a booking website to jump the queue for vaccinations.
In fact, on rule-breaking in general, it was Diwakar – one of the many admirably clear and direct medics that we should all be thankful are helping advise the government – who had the toughest warning of all. Breaches of the restrictions were “like switching on a light in the middle of a blackout in the Blitz… it puts your whole street and the whole of your community at risk”.
Yet, given the household mixing Boris Johnson allowed in many parts of the country over Christmas, one could argue that it was the prime minister himself who had flipped the megawatt floodlights on in late December. To paraphrase the WW2 blackout wardens, didn’t he know there was a bloody war on?
Yes, the selfish house party goers deserve higher fines, especially as each incident could unleash Covid clusters that fuel the pandemic. But what penalty has Johnson faced, let alone owned up to, for a policy that risked making him our superspreader-in-chief?
The detailed data analysis on the impact of the Christmas Day relaxation has yet to be done, and it will probably be the public inquiry that pores over it. Right now, the most striking thing on the charts is a huge spike in cases that reaches up to the first week of January, exactly in line with the one-week lag expected. The PM’s defenders will argue it was the new variant that turbocharged that spike, not the festive decision, but the jury is certainly still out.
Patel wasn’t too keen on answering this particular question (asked by HuffPost UK’s very own Rachel Wearmouth), instead repeating the mantra that “the government has always acted on the basis of scientific advice”. The Sage minutes of December 22 show that some of the advice certainly wasn’t acted upon. It would be better for the PM to simply come clean and say “I admit it, it was my decision, and a political decision, to allow millions to meet up”, rather than plead the Patel defence.
The PM is undoubtedly more cautious now, as evidenced by his continued reluctance to say when lockdown restrictions may start to be eased. The vaccination programme is powering ahead (with another day-on-day jump in numbers jabbed) and two bits of the coronavirus dashboard are indeed flashing green (both positive cases and crucially hospitalisations, which finally started to dip down). Yet with double the number of people in hospital now than in the first wave, the pressure on the NHS is clearly going to last for some time.
Dr Diwakar summed up the situation well when he contrasted the first hints of the lockdown working with the sheer scale of the problem. Lower numbers in general and acute beds, fewer 999 and the 111 Covid call-outs gave early “glimmers” of hope. Yet the number of intensive care admissions went up, not down, in the capital yesterday. He told how intensive care wards he visited had to rely on physios, dentists, junior doctors and surgeons to cope.
With Northern Ireland coming clean today in announcing restrictions would be in place until March 5 at the earliest, and Scotland already committed to full lockdown by mid-February, Johnson may have to be similarly candid on timetables soon, if only to reassure those exhausted NHS staff that their efforts won’t be ruined by another premature easing of restrictions.
As for the true spread of the virus, there was some confusion on Thursday. Test and Trace released stats to the end of January 13, showing a 15% drop in positive cases, the first weekly fall since early December. The Imperial College REACT survey, which samples asymptomatic cases, suggested a worrying rise in cases that same week. Meanwhile, the ZOE app pointed to a fall.
Of course, as I’ve written before, one big issue is that even those with symptoms often simply don’t isolate. And the Guardian has revealed tonight that a Cabinet Office study estimates just 17% of people come forward for testing, and makes clear the government is looking at a new scheme to pay everyone who isolates a flat payment of £500.
On a day when a new report by the Office for National Statistics revealed that UK inequality was at its highest point in a decade when coronavirus hit, the £500 flat payment suggests that finally Johnson’s government may finally be getting the point about the link between poverty and health. And maybe that effective, early lockdowns save not just lives but money over the long run?
As Tory education committee chairman Rob Halfon told us on our podcast today, the real solution would be to become a genuine “social justice” government that tackles these issues strategically, rather than having to U-turn tactically on Universal Credit or free school meals every few months. That could be one of the key “lessons learned” of the past year, if headteacher Johnson is ready to learn it.