The Speaker
Wednesday, 17 July 2024 – 20:03
Photo by Number 10 Downing Street (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

Winter of Discontent: could the recent rise in Covid cases spell Christmas chaos?

The pandemic seems far from over. Amid reports that the Sage committee are meeting with government ministers just once a month, there is increasing concern that the government are sleeping on a potential Covid-19 winter crisis, similar to that experience last year.

Sage are the major scientific advisory group for the government, but they have met just three times since July, and did not meet for the entirety of August, because of “lessened demand” from ministers for scientific advice.

This is despite the recent warnings from a committee member that the government should look towards a ‘plan B’ for winter. Cases and deaths related to the Coronavirus are at their highest level since March; 223 further deaths from covid-19 announced on Tuesday and daily cases have exceeded 40,000 for the past six days.

The Labour Party has said it “beggars belief” Sage has “effectively stood down” following the rollout of the vaccine.

Christina Pagel, a member of Sage group, said we’re seeing “pretty much an uncontrolled epidemic in children in schools”.

Professor Pagel called for a switch to “plan B”, with masks and home working reintroduced to bring transmission down, along with improving ventilation and opening windows.

“All the things we know work and we’ve abandoned. It just means doing that little bit extra of protection.”

This comes as the government announced that children could begin receiving the vaccine within weeks, with appointments soon being opened up.

Hospitalisations and deaths have been steadily increasing since restrictions in England were lifted on 19th July. Pubs, restaurants and nightclubs reopened and mask-wearing became (for the most part) voluntary, with adherence being increasingly lax in recent weeks.

There is also a concern that immunity in vaccinated people wanes after about six months, meaning many of those who were vaccinated in early 2021 may be more susceptible to the virus again. This includes many older people, who were the first to receive the vaccine. The spread of the much more infectious delta Covid variant in the spring and summer is also seen as a factor that has diminished vaccine efficacy.

Although booster shots are being rolled out, there is a concern that more measures beyond the vaccine will be required in order to control the rise in cases this winter. In recent weeks Boris Johnson refused to rule out tougher restrictions, simply saying that it was not the plan.

Dr. Eric Topol, founder and director of the Scripps Research Translational Institute, tweeted his assessment; 

“Why does the UK currently have 6-fold hospital admissions and a 3-fold higher death rate compared with Europe? Among [the] possible explanations, two that stand out are less use of mitigation measures and less vaccination of kids, age 12-17.”

It is also believed that the widespread use of the AstraZeneca vaccine – which tends to have faster waning immunity – could be contributing to the worsening situation.

One positive, however, is that the correlation between deaths and cases is far lower than at earlier points in the pandemic, and that the rise is less steep than previously.

Yet, it is still a concern to many that the government appear to be pressing ahead without much in the way of scientific advice or expertise contributing to their decision making.

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