Summer holidays are no time to relax about Government intentions

AS MANY OF US bask in what passes for a summer heatwave in Britain, some are already enjoying a break abroad or have taken their bucket and spade to one of our own glorious beaches, it is easy to think we have pretty much returned to normal and that Covid restrictions are behind us. You could not be more wrong.

Earlier this week Government Health Minister in the House of Lords, Syed Kamall, was quizzed about rising rates of Covid cases and harried about the possibility of reintroducing restrictions on social distancing or facemasks. The answer he gave was not encouraging and confirmed that there can be no room for complacency or believing ‘job done’ in ending lockdowns.

The first thing to be said is that it is quite clear we still have opposition politicians who think the right path is to rebuke the Government for being too liberal, or not interventionist or authoritarian enough by pushing Ministers to declare in favour of returning to restrictions (and ultimately lockdowns). Ironically, this includes Liberal Democrats. Here is what was said in the exchange,

Lady Merron (Labour): “To ask Her Majesty’s Government what assessment they have made of the recent rise in Covid cases across the UK to 2.7 million infections over the last week?”

Lord Kamall (Conservative): “We continue to see Covid-19 case rates and hospitalisations rise in all age groups, with the largest increases in hospitalisations and ICU admissions in those aged 75 and older. A large proportion of those hospitalised are admitted for reasons other than Covid. However, Covid is identified due to the increase in case rates in the community and the high rates of testing in hospital, including among those with no respiratory symptoms. Current data does not point to cases becoming more severe.”

Lady Merron (Labour): “My Lords, with a stark rise in infections, many people – particularly the clinically vulnerable, carers and older people – are feeling anxious, yet the Government have been noticeably silent, perhaps being somewhat distracted. We might be through the worst of Covid but evidently it has not gone away; individuals, organisation and businesses still want guidance. I have two questions for the Minister. Are the Government planning any campaigns, perhaps involving scientists and others, to highlight current risks and to encourage the take up of booster jabs? Are there plans to reintroduce mandatory mask wearing in hospitals, which the chair of the JCVI considers sensible?”

Lord Kamall (Conservative): “I have to strongly disagree with the noble Baroness when she says that the Government are doing nothing. We are reliant on the UKHSA, which monitors rates and gives us advice, along with the JCVI. In my briefing from the UKHSA, it said it is continuing to monitor cases. As many noble Lords will remember, when we announced the living with Covid strategy we said that we are always ready to stand up measures should case rates rise so much that our health system was under pressure. We managed to break the link between infections and hospitalisations and hospitalisations and death; if that gets out of control then of course we will stand up the measures that we had previously.”

Lord Paddick (Liberal Democrat): “Why does the Government not reintroduce free Covid tests for everyone in England and financial support for those who do the right thing and self-isolate, especially in the face of the cost-of-living crisis?”

Lord Kamall (Conservative): “The noble Lord will be aware of the different balances and trade-offs that the Government have to consider. At one stage, I think we spent £2 billion in a short period on testing, and a number of people in the health system said that surely that money would be better spent elsewhere, given the backlog due to lockdown. It is always a difficult trade-off on where you spend the money. At the moment, there are people who are still eligible for free tests: certain social and healthcare workers, and also people visiting and some carers. All this will continue to be monitored. Should the number of cases spiral out of control, clearly we would look to reintroduce free testing at some stage, should that be needed.”

Concurrent with this Lords question session revealing current government (and opposition) thinking, we know individual hospitals in Derbyshire, Lancashire and Cambridgeshire have already started to reintroduce face masks mandates and social distancing in waiting rooms and corridors.

The latest data on UK Covid deaths shows that on average there are just 35 fatalities per day across the UK. While obviously regretful this is less than half the figure for this time last month and significantly fewer than when admissions rose to their peak in January 2021 when there were 1,300 deaths a day from Covid-19.

Coincidentally this week – but all part of the same trend – the WHO Director-General, Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, called on governments to reintroduce face masks and other restrictive measures as a means to “push back” against a global rise in Covid cases.

Speaking at a media conference at WHO headquarters in Geneva on Tuesday, Ghebreyesus used the “further pressure” that was being put on “health systems and health workers” as reason enough for mandates and more rules. 

In self-congratulatory mode talking-up the progress governments have made globally in tackling the pandemic, the WHO Director-General inferred that what it had proposed in the past had worked, saying: “Of course, there’s been a lot of progress. We have safe and effective tools that prevent infections, hospitalisations and deaths. However, we should not take them for granted.”

This gave him the opportunity to call on governments to “deploy tried and tested measures like masking, improved ventilation and test and treat protocols”.

What is not widely understood is that the WHO wants to have the power to enforce its recommendations on governments, removing any national accountability from elected politicians – and that the process of ‘globalising’ public health decisions away from sovereign states to unaccountable international institutions is continuing, with the UK currently signed-up to the WHO process if not yet the outcome.

Again, cross currents if not co-ordination between international and multilateral health bodies was evident after the WHO’s European office recommended a second Covid vaccine booster for older individual and vulnerable groups, following the EU’s health and medicine agency’s guidance of a second booster vaccine for over 60-year-olds the day before.

Now, just yesterday (Friday 15 July) the UK Government’s JCVI issued new guidance making available and recommending the latest Covid booster for over 50s and vulnerable groups –  and those in contact with them aged 5-49. This is a departure from previous JCVI guidance for booster distribution among those over 65-years-old and associated vulnerable groups.

This is the beginning of preparations for the winter and while not unexpected given the international push, British politicians should be very much on their guard to not open doors for the return of restrictions.

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Brian Monteith is a former member of the Scottish and European Parliaments and managing editor of the Recovery blog.