Category Archives: Health

The Third Wave: A Timeline Of How We Got Here

The Third Wave: A Timeline Of How We Got Here
by Ian Sinclair
Morning Star
8 July 2020

“We’re seeing cases rise fairly rapidly – and there could be 50,000 cases detected per day by the 19 [July] and again as we predicted, we’re seeing rising hospital admissions”, Boris Johnson explained at a Downing Street press conference on 5 July. “We must reconcile ourselves sadly to more deaths from Covid.”

Frustratingly, as epidemiologist Dr Deepti Gurdasani told the Morning Star last month, “what is happening now was entirely predictable and predicted”.  And incredibly, despite the rising number of hospital admissions endangering the NHS’s recovery, over one million people living with Long Covid and an increasing risk of a new variant resistant to vaccines, on 5 July the Prime Minister announced plans to fully open on 19 July. In short, UK government policy is let the virus “rip” in the UK.

How did we end up in this mess?

21 January: The minutes from the day’s SAGE meeting warns the “evidence from the continued spread of the South African and UK variants suggests that reactive, geographically targeted travel bans cannot be relied upon to stop importation of new variants once identified.” The minutes also note “No intervention, other than a complete, pre-emptive closure of borders, or the mandatory quarantine of all visitors upon arrival in designated facilities, irrespective of testing history, can get close to fully prevent the importation of cases or new variants.”

25 January: Speaking to a Confederation of British Industry webinar, Dido Harding, the Head of the Test and Trace, says fewer than 60 per cent of people asked to self-isolate actually do so.

24 March: India announces it has detected a new “double mutant variant” of coronavirus.

1 April: According to the Times, ministers are told about the arrival of a variant in the UK that has originated in India (AKA the Delta variant). Chief Medical Officer Chris Whitty says the idea that Covid variants can be stopped from entering the country is “not realistic”, reports the Guardian.

12 April: The government proceeds with step 2 of lockdown easing, with non-essential shops, hair salons pubs and restaurants with outdoor seating all re-opened.

15 April: Public Health England announces the Indian variant has been found in the UK. Speaking to the Guardian, Professor Christina Pagel, director of UCL’s clinical operational research unit and member of Independent SAGE, says “It is ridiculous that India is not on the travel red list yet – or many other countries for that matter – when India is seeing 200,000 new cases every day at the moment.”

23 April: The government adds India to the red list, banning travel to the UK from India. The Sunday Times later reports “Analysis of Civil Aviation Authority figures suggest that 20,000 people arrived in the UK from India from April 2 to April 23.” A Whitehall source told the newspaper: “It’s very clear that we should have closed the border to India earlier and that Boris did not do so because he didn’t want to offend [Indian Prime Minister] Modi.”

4 May: Teaching unions the NEU and NASUWT, along with support staff unions Unite, Unison and the GMB, have sent an open letter to education secretary Gavin Williamson, co-signed by around 20 scientists and public health professionals, urging the government to keep face covering in secondary schools until at least 21 June.

7 May: Public Health England identifies the Delta variant as a “variant of concern”.

12 May: The Prime Minister announces the public inquiry into the government’s response to the pandemic will start in spring 2022. Layla Moran, the Liberal Democrat MP who chairs the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Coronavirus, says delaying the inquiry “means vital lessons will go unlearned,” the Guardian reports.

13 May: The minutes of the day’s SAGE meeting warns “If this [Delta AKA Indian] variant were to have a 40-50% transmission advantage nationally compared to” the so-called Kent variant the modelling “indicate that it is likely that progressing with step 3 alone… would lead to a substantial resurgence of hospitalisations (similar to, or larger than, previous peaks)”.

17 May: The government proceeds with step 3 of the lockdown easing. People are now allowed to socialise indoors in limited numbers and visit pubs and restaurants inside.The government announces pupils are no longer required to wear face coverings in schools and colleges. International travel is allowed again, governed by a new traffic light system.

3 June: Professor Pagel tells the Guardian: “it is clear that schools are a major source of transmission and that outbreaks in primary and secondary schools have been growing a lot week on week.”

8 June: Keep Out NHS Public co-chair Dr John Puntis tells the Morning Star: “To reduce the spread of the virus, we need proper support for those asked to isolate, improved ventilation in indoor environments, face mask for secondary school children, stricter controls on borders and international travel, speedier vaccine rollout and a serious global vaccine initiative.”

11 June: Public Health England reports the Delta variant is 64 percent more transmissible than the Alpha (Kent) variant.

15 June: The Prime Minister delays plans to lift most remaining restrictions (step 4 of the lockdown easing), planned for 21 June, by a month, warning that thousands more people could die if the government opened up as planned, because of the rapid spread of the Delta variant.

16 June: During Prime Ministers Questions, Boris Johnson states the UK “has the toughest border measures anywhere in the world.” The Guardian notes this is “hard to square with the fact that some countries, including Australia and New Zealand, bar almost all overseas arrivals.”

17 June: Speaking to the Morning Star, Dr Deepti Gurdasani, a Senior Lecturer in Machine Learning and epidemiologist at Queen Mary University of London, says “I do think the 17 May re-opening was a mistake but I think we would have likely seen a rise in cases even then because we know that cases of the Delta variant were actually doubling even prior to 17 May”.

18 June: Nearly two-thirds of workers in England seeking grants to help them self-isolate are refused help, according to research from the Trades Union Congress.

20 June: Hosting The Andrew Marr Show, the BBC’s Nick Robinson quotes Jeffrey Barrett, Director of the COVID-19 Genomics Initiative, Wellcome Sanger Institute: “Looking back it’s clear that a major part of why we are now faced with a growing wave of cases of the Delta variant is because there were hundreds of introductions from abroad during April.”

23 June: The deputy chief executive of NHS Providers, Saffron Cordery, tells BBC Breakfast: “Trusts on the frontline are really coming under huge pressure … they have plans in place to tackle the backlog, but with more Covid cases and demand for emergency care going up, that’s really challenging.”

28 June: Newly appointed Health Secretary Sajid Javid says the country must “learn to live” with Covid-19.

1 July: The European Parliament’s committee on public health describes allowing 60,000 fans into Wembley for the European Championship semi-finals and final as “a recipe for disaster,” the Irish Times reports.

3 July: The British Medical Association urges the government to keep some targeted measures to control the spread of Covid-19 in place after 19 July in England, including face masks in enclosed public spaces and improved ventilation.

5 July: Emphasising “personal responsibility”, the Prime Minister announces the loosening of all restrictions on 19 July. The one-metre social distance rule will and the work from home guidance will end, and mask-wearing will be voluntary. This opening up will make England “the most unrestricted society in Europe,” the Guardian reports. Anthony Costello, Professor of Global Health and Sustainable Development at University College London, describes it is “Libertarian public health”.

6 July: The health secretary says the number of infections could rise above 100,000 a day over the summer.

7 July: Over 100 global experts publish an open letter in the Lancet medical journal arguing the government’s plan to lift nearly all restrictions on 19 July is “dangerous and premature.”

In April, Ian Sinclair and Rupert Read published A Timeline Of The Plague Year: A Comprehensive Record of the UK Government’s Response to the Coronavirus Crisis, available as a free PDF and EBook, and as a pay-to-print book at https://covidtheplagueyear.wordpress.com/.

“What is happening now was entirely predictable and predicted”: Deepti Gurdasani interview

“What is happening now was entirely predictable and predicted”: Deepti Gurdasani interview
by Ian Sinclair
Morning Star
17 June 2021

With a third wave of the pandemic surging in the UK and hospital admissions rising, on Monday the Prime Minister announced a four-week delay to the lifting of all restrictions in England beyond 21 June.

For weeks the media and Westminster has been fixated on whether “Freedom Day” should go ahead as planned. However, speaking to me over the phone last week, Dr Deepti Gurdasani, a Senior Lecturer in Machine Learning and epidemiologist at Queen Mary University of London, says “the focus on the 21st is a complete distraction.” As she tweeted just before Boris Johnson’s press conference, “Postponing 21st June isn’t remotely sufficient to deal with the current crisis.”

Furthermore, she tells me “what is happening now was entirely predictable and predicted by SAGE” (the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies advising the government).

The risks of further opening up were clear before the step three change to the “roadmap” on 17 May, she explains, pointing me to the 13 May SAGE meeting. “If this [Delta AKA Indian] variant were to have a 40-50% transmission advantage nationally compared to” the so-called Kent variant the modelling indicates “that it is likely that progressing with step 3 alone… would lead to a substantial resurgence of hospitalisations (similar to, or larger than, previous peaks)”, the minutes record. These fears were confirmed on 4 June when SAGE’s Professor Neil Ferguson told the BBC Today programme the best estimate is the Delta variant is 60 per cent more transmissible.

“I do think the 17 May re-opening was a mistake but I think we would have likely seen a rise in cases even then because we know that cases of the Delta variant were actually doubling even prior to 17 May”, Gurdasani notes. The spread of the virus that has happened in schools actually predates the Delta variant, she says, “but the government went ahead and removed masks, which was one of the few mitigations that we have in schools.”

She also highlights SAGE’s 21 January 2021 warning that the “evidence from the continued spread of the South African and UK variants suggests that reactive, geographically targeted travel bans cannot be relied upon to stop importation of new variants once identified.” Similar advice was given by Independent SAGE at the time, she explains. Both were ignored by the government, which re-opened international travel, governed by a new, leaky traffic light system, on 17 May.

Gurdasani, who has made a name for herself as one of the most outspoken experts appearing in the media, doesn’t hold back: “Where we are now is a completely predictable consequence of government repeatedly ignoring advice from its own advisers.” Indeed, it is worth remembering Dominic Cummings testified that Boris Johnson repeatedly cited Jaws, specifically the mayor of the resort town who keeps the beaches open despite evidence of shark attacks, when considering lockdowns.

Though her main focus is the government, Gurdasani doesn’t shy away from criticising her own profession. Interviewed on BBC News on 4 June she noted “The risk of the Delta variant was hugely minimised by our scientific community and our scientific leadership”.

Why? “What I see here is exceptionalism within our scientific community”, she replies. “We repeatedly dismiss evidence coming in from other countries. And we have done right from the beginning of the pandemic, suggesting that what is happening to other countries has something to do with those countries characteristics, rather than something that applies to us.” She points to the example of Italy in early March 2020: “We looked at what was happening in Italy and we still didn’t act, we still didn’t close our borders.”

She is also dismayed at how the UK has generally wanted “to wait for rigorous evidence on everything before we act.” Not only that, “we deal with uncertainty by assuming there isn’t risk.”

“We kept saying masks don’t work because we didn’t have trials on them and we wanted to wait for evidence”, she says. “Whereas there were countries that put them in very, very early on. It is the same with variants. We waited so long to make this [the Delta variant] a variant of concern and start surge testing on it despite the fact there were several scientists who had been screaming for weeks, at least four to six weeks, saying that this was really, really concerning given what was happening in India.”

She continues: “It has huge consequences because it takes weeks and months to accrue evidence. Much better to overreact and act early and then when evidence accumulates showing something isn’t a risk then you can remove things.”

She also believes the pandemic has revealed “very clear racial stereotypes” that have undermined the UK’s response. “We still hear about this: ‘People won’t accept lockdowns because they are freedom loving. They are not like people in China, like people in Southeast Asia, who are far more culturally obedient’… or people won’t wear masks, not like the mask wearing culture in Japan.”

However, as the polling shows, the British public “would have been very happy to adopt earlier lockdowns, and have supported a cautious approach consistently”, she says.

Like the Morning Star, Gurdasani advocates a Zero Covid (elimination) strategy.

It “is not an alternative to a vaccine-based strategy, it is an adjunct”, she explains. “It complements it. And the way it complements it is it really reduces the risk to the population while you roll out vaccinations. It protects people from the risks of transmission, like Long Covid, hospitalisations and deaths”. Secondly, “it prevents new mutations or variants from arising within the country, or being imported into the country, that potentially threatens that vaccine strategy.”

As it happens, just before I spoke to Gurdasani I received an email from my Labour MP about Zero Covid. “I am not aware of any examples of countries where Covid has been eliminated after infections have grown to a significant level and sustained community transmission has taken hold”, my parliamentary representative wrote.

Gurdasani laughs when I quote this to her: “I have a one-word response to that: China.” She is referring to the Chinese city of Wuhan, which went from being the epicentre of the outbreak in early 2020 to life pretty much returning to normal by January 2021, according to news reports.

She argues there is widespread confusion about Zero Covid, even amongst some scientists. “Elimination is not eradication. We’re not saying this is Smallpox and we will get rid of it entirely forever. We are saying that we are going to try and keep it out of the community, out of community transmission.”

To suppress the virus she proposes the test, trace and isolate system be completely overhauled. It should work closely with local authorities and take inspiration from South Korea and Japan where there is effective backward and forward contact tracing: “So there is a focus on finding the people that somebody has infected but also how that person has been infected to identify actual clusters of transmission and break them.”

In addition, she advocates “mandatory quarantine for anyone coming in from any country” should be introduced “because once you reach zero risk of transmission essentially comes from outside.”

Implementing an elimination strategy would mean “we can return to near normal faster”, she argues. “Vaccination takes time but a Zero Covid strategy can be achieved in a matter of four to six weeks, depending on the number of cases you are starting from.” And if successful, travel corridors could be set up with other countries that have successfully implemented a Zero Covid strategy.

While she says there is a much to be optimistic about, the interview is, unsurprisingly, dominated by her worries about the government’s continued disastrous response to the pandemic. As she told Channel 4 News earlier this month, the roadmap “has never focussed on bringing transmission down.”

And while she “wholly supports” the vaccination programme, she argues there is an over-reliance on vaccines. “The scientific community has, I think, adopted hopium – a sort of blind optimism around vaccines.”

“We are still not thinking ahead to ‘What about the next variant?’”, she tells me. “How do you know this virus won’t adapt towards more [vaccine] escape, which is very likely, or that we won’t import another virus?… What happens then? Are we back to square one? If you want to avoid that I think the only sure way to do it is Zero Covid.”

Follow Dr Deepti Gurdasani on Twitter @dgurdasani1.

A Timeline Of The Plague Year

A Timeline Of The Plague Year
by Ian Sinclair
Morning Star
22 April 2021

To mark the one year anniversary of the first national lockdown, last month the Guardian published profiles of Chief Scientific Adviser Sir Patrick Vallance and Chief Medical Officer Chris Whitty.

“The wealthy civil servant’s year of speaking truth to power”, was the title of the fawning article on Vallance. Discussing the early days of the pandemic, the Guardian’s Rupert Neate asserted “Vallance may have been one of the few people in Whitehall who understood what was coming”. Echoing the title, he noted “Vallance’s friends and colleagues say that he is not afraid to speak scientific truth to power.”

The profile on Whitty was similarly obsequious, titled: “The calm voice who steered a nation in crisis”. The co-authors Ian Sample and Heather Stewart wrote “The crisis has demanded dedication and stamina, but Whitty has also needed the trust of those around him”. There is a brief reference to mistakes made in the early days of the crisis, such as Whitty responding to covid as if it was a flu pandemic, but overall the tone is deeply flattering. “Whitty’s calm authority appealed far beyond Westminster”, they note.

All of which makes the 2019 claim made by Guardian Editor Katharine Viner that Guardian journalists “believe in holding the powerful to account” sounds rather hollow. More accurate is journalist Peter Oborne’s recent analysis in the Morning Star: “We have to understand that the British media class is an instrument of power and should be treated as such rather than a fourth estate holding power to account.”

Partly in response to the media’s poor performance at the beginning of the pandemic, since April 2020 Rupert Read and I have been compiling a detailed timeline of the government’s response to coronavirus. Updated and published every week since then and now totalling over 69,000 words, the timeline is made up of thousands of sources, including press reports, television and radio news, medical journals, health experts and organisations, trade unions and polling results.

Working with editor Joanna Booth, we have just published the timeline as a free eBook and pay-to-print book too – titled A Timeline Of The Plague Year: A Comprehensive Record of the UK Government’s Response to the Coronavirus Crisis

So how does the Guardian’s stenography on Vallance and Whitty compare to the information found in our timeline?

For starters, the deadly concept of “herd immunity” is not mentioned in either of the two profiles. Herd immunity is when a large majority of the population are infected or vaccinated, and therefore gain immunity and stop the spread of the virus.

In contrast, our timeline records that a senior politician told the Sunday Times he “had conversations with Chris Whitty at the end of January [2020] and they were absolutely focused on herd immunity.”

Vallance was even clearer about the government’s strategy on BBC’s Today programme on 13 March 2020. One of “the key things we need to do” is to “build up some kind of herd immunity so more people are immune to this disease and we reduce the transmission”, he noted.

There are two huge problems with herd immunity – both widely understood in March 2020. First, the estimated mortality rates of the virus at the time – around 1%, according to a Guardian report on 7 March 2020 – would have meant around half a million deaths in the UK to achieve herd immunity. Second, there was ‘no clear evidence people who had suffered the virus would have lasting antibody protection’, as the Sunday Times explained on 24 May 2020.

Vallance and Whitty also made a series of catastrophic calls in the run up to the first lockdown on 23 March 2020. On 9 March 2020 Vallance said holding “mass gatherings and so on — actually don’t make much difference”. Three days later he asserted “the peak may be something like 10 to 14 weeks away – it could be a bit longer”. The peak was actually under four weeks away, with 1,461 deaths recorded on 8 April 2020.

Discussing restrictive measures, such as lockdown, to fight the virus at a Downing Street press conference, on 9 March 2020 Whitty stated “There is a risk if we go too early people will understandably get fatigued and it will be difficult to sustain this over time.”

Stephen Reicher, Professor of Social Psychology at the University of St Andrews and member of SPI-B (the group that provided behavioral science advice to government), later described Whitty’s analysis as “just plain wrong”. Similarly, A BBC Newsnight investigation broadcast in July 2020 concluded there “doesn’t appear to have been much evidence… at the time” for Whitty’s claim that if lockdown is implemented too early people would get “fatigued”. Robert West, Professor of Health Psychology at University College London and member of SPI-B, commented: “this term ‘behavioural fatigue’… certainly didn’t come from SPI-B, and it is not a behavioural science term. If you look in the literature you won’t find it because it doesn’t exist”.

The delay to lockdown was extremely costly. Back-dated modelling by Oxford University estimates there were just 14,000 infected people in the UK on 3 March 2020. By 23 March 2020 the number was likely to have been 1.5 million. “Those 20 days of government delay are the single most important reason why the UK has the second highest number of deaths from the coronavirus in the world”, the Sunday Times noted in May 2020. A December 2020 report by Imperial College estimated that imposing a national lockdown in just one week earlier in March 2020 would have saved 21,000 lives.

Moreover, we shouldn’t lose sight of the fact Vallance and Whitty have been at the centre of the government’s response to the crisis, which means they oversaw the decision to stop mass testing on 12 March 2020, the ending of the quarantining of people arriving at UK airports from coronavirus hotspots a day later, the thousands of deaths in care homes and the shambolic test and trace programme.

With over 150,000 people having died from covid in the UK, according to Office for National Statistics figures, the government’s response has been, as Lancet editor-in-chief Richard Horton noted, “a national scandal”.

None of this highly pertinent and damning information appeared in the two Guardian profiles.

In contrast, all of the information above can be found in our timeline, along with other key aspects of the crisis, including the mounting death toll, lockdowns, the Personal Protective Equipment shortage, the (lack of) border closures, the disastrous Eat Out To Help Out scheme, the dangers of Long Covid, and support for a Zero Covid strategy.  

We hope our comprehensive account of the plague year will be useful to anyone interested in understanding the UK government’s response to the crisis, historians studying the pandemic in the future and to the public inquiry that must be established.

“They really are scared that the verdict of history is going to condemn them for contributing to the deaths of tens of thousands of British citizens”, Horton commented about the UK government in April 2020. “They are desperately trying to rewrite the timeline of what happened. And we must not let them do that.”

A Timeline Of The Plague Year: A Comprehensive Record of the UK Government’s Response to the Coronavirus Crisis by Ian Sinclair and Rupert Read is available as a free PDF download, free ebook and pay-to-print book from https://covidtheplagueyear.wordpress.com/ . Follow Ian on Twitter @IanJSinclair.

Where is the Left on Zero Covid?

Where is the Left on Zero Covid?
by Ian Sinclair
Morning Star
9 April 2021

“There is… no credible route to a zero covid Britain or indeed a zero covid world”, Boris Johnson told the House of Commons on 22 February. “We cannot persist indefinitely with restrictions that debilitate our economy, our physical and mental well-being, and the life chances of our children”.

To confirm, a zero covid strategy aims for the total elimination of covid. Many people may be confused, thinking “Isn’t this exactly what the government has been trying to do since the start of the pandemic?” Unfortunately, the answer is no. The UK has followed what science writer Laura Spinney recently described in the Guardian as “a mitigation and suppression strategy, according to which we will have to live with Covid-19 and therefore we must learn to manage it – aiming for herd immunity by the most painless route possible.”

The Prime Minister’s dismissal of zero covid puts him at odds with a large body of scientific expertise. In early July 2020 Independent SAGE published a report calling on the government to “fundamentally change its approach” and follow a “new overarching strategic objective of achieving a Zero COVIDUK, i.e. the elimination of the virus from the UK”.

Individual members of the group – including ex-Chief Scientific Adviser Sir David King and Professors Anthony Costello, Christina Pagel and Susan Michie from UCL – have continued to push for zero covid since then.

And there is some support amongst the government’s own scientific advisers, including Professor Robert West from University College London and Professor Stephen Reicher from University of St Andrews – both member of the Scientific Pandemic Insights Group on Behaviours (SPI-B).

In addition, Richard Horton, editor-in-chief of the Lancet medical journal, Professor Devi Sridhar from the University of Edinburgh and clinical epidemiologist Dr Deepti Gurdasani from Queen Mary have also voiced support.

In parliament, zero covid is backed by the Socialist Campaign Group of more than 30 MPs, and in August 2020 Layla Moran MP, as Chair of the All Party Parliamentary Group on Coronavirus (consisting of 60 MPs and Peers), wrote to the Prime Minister pushing for a zero covid strategy.

Turning to the national press, the Morning Star was, as far as I can tell, the first UK national newspaper to support zero covid, while the Guardian backed it in a December 2020 editorial.

Speaking on BBC’s Politics Live in February, Pagel summarised the key reasons for pursuing an elimination strategy: “Keeping cases low is by far the best for keeping the economy open, and for saving lives, and for reducing the chances of a new variant, and for preventing Long Covid”.

In short, it would mean less people getting seriously ill, and less people dying.  

However, while there is significant support for zero covid, there is also considerable opposition, often based on a number of evidence-light assertions:

Zero covid is not possible.

New Zealand and Taiwan have both successfully pursued an elimination strategy. New Zealand has had 26 deaths from covid. Taiwan, which has a population of 23.4 million and a population density of 652 people per square kilometre (the UK’s population density is around 275 people per square kilometre), has limited its death toll from covid to just ten people. The UK has recorded over 125,000 deaths from covid.

Speaking to the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Coronavirus, Martin McKee, Professor of European Public Health at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, said: “I’m puzzled by this, because it’s not just Australia, New Zealand and Taiwan (adopting zero-Covid tactics), which are islands, but it’s also Vietnam, and there are other parts of the world that have been very successful even if they do have challenges, like Uruguay or Rwanda or Finland or Norway… So there are plenty of places that are trying to do this [achieve zero-Covid status].”

Zero covid is not possible at this point in time as the UK has such a high number of cases across the nation.

China is pursuing an elimination strategy, and according to a January CNBC report on Wuhan, the epicentre of the outbreak, “Life has largely returned to normal in the city of 11 million, even as the rest of the world grapples with the spread of the virus’ more contagious variants.”

Similarly, the Australian state of Victoria (population 6.7 million), recorded 723 new cases on one day in July 2020. On the same day the UK recorded 763 new cases. However, on 4 November 2020, Hassan Vally, Associate Professor in Public Health at La Trobe University, noted in the Guardian, “Victoria is recording no new cases, while the UK has 18,950.”

“The goal was not just to slow Covid-19 down. It was to eradicate the virus”, Vox reported in December about Victoria’s success.

However, even if it is not possible to completely eliminate new cases in UK right now, a government committed to zero covid would significantly reduce cases, and therefore significantly reduce deaths. As Michael Baker, Professor of Public Health at the University of Otago, and McKee, noted in the Guardian in January: “Aiming for zero-Covid” produces “more positive results than trying to ‘live with the virus’”.

Zero covid would mean more, perhaps endless, restrictions and lockdowns.

In fact the exact opposite is true. “A zero covid strategy (which means zero tolerance of any level of infection) is the antithesis of lockdown. It is the failure to implement such a strategy – and hence the loss of control over infection – which leads to lockdown”, Reicher tweeted in February.

Thus, sporting events have been held in packed stadiums in New Zealand, and the country’s Prime Minister Jacina Ardern has been posting videos of herself at community BBQs. To date Taiwan has not had any national lockdowns.

Zero covid is redundant now we have the vaccine.

In March the Guardian reported “Experts on the modelling subgroup of SAGE calculate that even under the most optimistic scenario, at least 30,000 more Covid deaths could occur in the UK.” This testimony points to an uncomfortable fact – the vaccination programme, while very important, will not prevent a large number of deaths over the next few months. Moreover, “We have to prevent new variants arising that put our entire vaccination programme at risk, and potentially set us back to the beginning again”, Pagel explained on BBC Newsnight in February. “The more opportunities it [the virus] has to infect people, the more chance it has to mutate. So the lower cases are, the less chance it is going to have.”

Frustratingly much of the left has failed to back a zero covid strategy. Where are the unions – the TUC, Unison, Unite, GMB? Where is the Labour Party? Where is Momentum?

Key left-wing figures have dismissed or questioned zero covid. In September, Tribune Culture Editor Owen Hatherley tweeted “’it’s just like the flu, calm down’ and ‘we must have zero covid’ are both bad takes”. Elsewhere, Richard Seymour recently tweeted he was “still unsure about zero covid”, while Novara Media’s Michael Walker has argued an elimination strategy was the right course of action in summer 2020 but with the introduction of the vaccine he no longer supports it.

There is still lots of work to do to persuade the broad left – and wider society – to back a zero covid strategy. One thing every reader can do is contact their MP and ask them to sign Early Day Motion 1450, which “calls on the UK Government urgently to adopt a zero covid plan that seeks the maximum suppression of the virus as the best way to save lives and allow our communities and the economy to safely reopen.” So far 42 MPs have put their names to the EDM, including SNP Westminster leader Ian Blackford, the Green Party’s Caroline Lucas, Lib Dem Tim Farron and Plaid Cymru MPs.

More broadly, a campaign strategy of pressuring members of the SAGE group advising government to publicly support zero covid could well be the best way to apply pressure on the government itself.

As McKee noted in a letter published in the BMJ in October: “No one pretends that achieving zero covid is easy, but in the long term the alternative is far worse.”

Follow Ian on Twitter @IanJSinclair

New book published – ‘A Timeline Of The Plague Year: A Comprehensive Record of the UK Government’s Response to the Coronavirus Crisis’

I have a new book out. Co-authored with Rupert Read (and edited by Joanna Booth) ‘A Timeline Of The Plague Year: A Comprehensive Record of the UK Government’s Response to the Coronavirus Crisis’ is, we think, the most comprehensive record of the UK government’s response to covid.

Covering key aspects of the crisis, including the huge death toll, lockdowns, herd immunity policy, the Personal Protective Equipment, care homes, long covid, the test and trace system, border closures, Eat Out To Help Out and statements made by official government advisors and independent experts, we believe the timeline is a must read for anyone interested in understanding what happened and stopping it happening again

Free ebook and pay-to-print book available here: https://covidtheplagueyear.wordpress.com/

How They Made Us Doubt Everything

How They Made Us Doubt Everything
by Ian Sinclair
Morning Star
25 February 2021

“The twentieth century has been characterized by three developments of great political importance”, Alex Carey noted in his seminal 1995 book Taking the Risk Out of Democracy: “the growth of democracy, the growth of corporate power, and the growth of corporate propaganda as a means of protecting corporate power against democracy.”

The Australian writer’s analysis is well illustrated by the engrossing ten-part BBC Radio 4 series How They Made Us Doubt Everything.

Presented by Peter Pomerantsev, author of the 2019 book This Is Not Propaganda: Adventures in the War Against Reality, the series looks at how corporate public relations firms engineered doubt about the connection between smoking and cancer in the 1960s, and then used similar tactics to manufacture doubt about climate change.

The story begins in December 1953 soon after the publication of an article titled “Cancer by the carton” in the popular US magazine Reader’s Digest. The heads of the major tobacco industry companies hold a secret crisis meeting in New York, having hired John Hill, the founder of Hill & Knowlton, the world’s first international PR firm, to assist them.

“Because of the grave nature of a number of recently highly publicised research reports on the effects of cigarette smoking widespread public interest had developed causing great concern within and without the industry”, noted a Hill & Knowlton memo written a few days later, titled ‘Preliminary Recommendations for Cigarette Manufacturers’. “These developments have confronted the industry with a serious problem of public relations”.

Hill had made his name helping steel companies undermine trade unions and protecting big business. And, true to form, Hill & Knowlton put together the PR playbook the tobacco industry used to protect their profits – most infamously the 1954 A Frank Statement advertisement.

Appearing in nearly 450 newspapers and reaching an estimated 43 million Americans, according to a 2002 article in Tobacco Control journal, the advert emphasised there was no agreement amongst scientists on what caused lung cancer, and pledged tobacco industry “aid and assistance to the research effort into all phases of tobacco use and health.”

Ingeniously, Hill didn’t reject the science, but selectively used it to confuse the public. “It is important that the public recognise the existence of weighty scientific views which hold there is no proof that cigarette smoking is a cause of lung cancer”, he argued. Pomerantsev calls this the “White coats” strategy, with the tobacco industry using scientists often funded by the industry to call into question the work of independent scientists. “You undermine science with more science”, he notes.

A 1969 secret tobacco industry memo perfectly distilled Hill’s approach: “Doubt is our product. Since it is the best means of competing with the body of fact that exists in the minds of the general public. It is also the means of establishing controversy.”

It is now well understood the tobacco industry’s manipulation of the public delayed regulation and behaviour change, leading to hundreds of thousands of avoidable early deaths. However, years later the playbook was dusted down and put it into action again – this time by an oil industry whose profits were under threat from the public’s increasing concern about global warming. And the stakes were even higher than with tobacco, both in the scale of the threat to humanity and for the companies involved: in 2000 the oil company Exxon Mobil logged $17.7 billion in income, giving it the most profitable year of any corporation in history, according to CNN.

Shockingly, How They Made Us Doubt Everything highlights how Exxon knew about the dangers of climate change, and their role in it, by the early 1980s. Speaking to Pomerantsev, Exxon scientist Martin Hoffert explains he successfully modelled the link between burning fossil fuels and climate change in 1981, passing the results onto management. However, ignoring their own research, in 1996 Exxon CEO Lee Raymond stated “the scientific evidence is inconclusive as to whether human activities are having a significant effect on the global climate.”

This was likely part of Exxon’s broader strategy to confuse and manipulate the public about the reality of climate change. A 1989 presentation by Exxon’s Manager of Science and Strategy to the company’s Board of Directors noted the data pointed to “significant climate change, and sea level use with generally negative consequences”. Furthermore, the long hot summer of 1988 “has drawn much attention to the potential problems and we are starting to hear the inevitable call for action”, with the media “likely to increase public awareness and concern”. His recommendation? “More rational responses will require efforts to extend the science and increase emphasis on costs and political realities.” Discussing the presentation with Pomerantsev, Kert Davies from the Climate Investigations Center says it shows “they are worried that the public will take this on and enact radical changes in the way we use energy and affect their business.”

Indeed, by 1988 Exxon’s position was clear, according to a memo written by their Public Affairs Manager, Joseph M. Carlson: “emphasise the uncertainty in scientific conclusions regarding the potential enhanced greenhouse effect.”

Similarly, in 1991 the green-sounding Information Council on the Environment (ICE) – which in fact represented electrical companies in the US – set out their strategy: “reposition global warming as theory (not fact).” Surveys commissioned by ICE recommended targeting specific segments of the population, including “older, lesser educated males from larger households who are not typically information seekers” and “younger, low income women”, who they believed were more easily influenced by new information. Thankfully, following an embarrassing leak to the New York Times, the organisation quickly folded.

Just as the public’s concern about smoking and health led to industry competitors working together to save their businesses, following the signing of the 1997 Kyoto Protocol committing states to reduce the carbon emissions, Exxon joined forces with Southern Company and Chevron to design a “multi-year, multi-million dollar plan to fund denial and install uncertainty.” This Global Climate Science Communications Plan noted: “Victory will be achieved when average citizens ‘understand’ (recognize) uncertainties in the climate science”.

In many ways this corporate-funded climate denial propaganda campaign was hugely successful in its aims. Pomerantsev quotes the results of a 2016 Pew Research Center poll of Americans, which found just 48 per cent of respondents understood that the Earth is warming mostly due to human activity, with just 15 per cent of conservative Republicans agreeing.

And like the tobacco industry strategy of doubt, the fossil-fuelled PR campaign has undoubtedly confused the public in the US and beyond and delayed action on the biggest threat facing humanity, meaning perhaps millions of unnecessary deaths. However, there are reasons to believe the fossil fuel corporations are now losing the war.

Speaking to the Morning Star in March 2019, David Wallace-Wells, the author of The Uninhabitable Earth: Life After Warming, explained there have been significant shifts in US public opinion over recent years. For example, a 2019 Yale University/George Mason University survey found six in ten Americans were either “alarmed” or “concerned” about climate change, with the proportion of people “alarmed” having doubled since 2013.

A January 2021 poll by the United Nations Development Programme – the largest poll ever conducted on climate change, with 1.2 million people questioned in 50 countries – confirms these hopeful results: two-thirds of respondents said climate change is a “global emergency”, including 65 per cent of respondents in the US.

Indeed, it is important to remember Democrat Joe Biden was elected to the White House after campaigning on what Nature journal called “the most ambitious climate platform ever put forth by a leading candidate for US president.”

Two important conclusions can be made from listening to How They Made Us Doubt Everything. First, while Pomerantsev himself has written extensively about Russian propaganda and disinformation efforts directed at the West, his BBC Radio 4 series suggests the main threat to the wellbeing of Western publics actually comes from Western corporate propaganda rather than Russian troll farms and cyberwarfare groups like Fancy Bear. And second, there is an ongoing struggle between corporate power and democratic forces across the globe – what former US Democratic presidential hopeful John Edwards called an “epic fight”. The outcome could not be more serious: future generations will only inherit a liveable planet if we are able to successfully confront corporate propaganda and tame corporate power.

How The Made Us Doubt Everything is available to stream or download from BBC Sounds.

Groundhog Day: The government’s shameful response to the second COVID surge

Groundhog Day: The government’s shameful response to the second COVID surge
by Ian Sinclair
Peace News
December 2020

The UK government’s response to the coronavirus pandemic has been a ‘national scandal’, as I wrote in PN six months ago. (See PN 2642 – 2643) Reaching its peak in terms of infections and deaths in March and April, the virus killed an estimated 65,400 people in the UK by mid-June, according to the Financial Times. At the time, this huge death toll was the highest in Europe, and the second-highest in the world after the United States.

Following the introduction of the national lockdown on 23 March, the prevalence of the virus reduced significantly in the UK over the summer. However, despite a warning from its own expert scientific advisory group for emergencies (SAGE) that coming out of lockdown too early could lead to 100,000 deaths by the end of the year (Sunday Times, 10 May), the government pursued a reckless strategy of opening up the economy from May onwards.

Shops were allowed to re-open on 15 June, international travel restrictions were relaxed on 6 July, and people were urged to return to work after 1 August. On 3 August, the government introduced its ‘Eat Out to Help Out’ scheme which encouraged people to eat in restaurants by providing money off their bills. Supported by the Labour party leadership, the government reopened schools and universities in September.
The predictable outcome of all these measures has been a huge surge in the virus, with Imperial College London estimating 96,000 new cases every day in England alone by the end of October (BBC News, 29 October).

On 2 September, the government’s scientific pandemic influenza group on modelling reported that people returning to the UK from abroad were spreading the virus – because of poor compliance with quarantine and the lack of testing at airports (Guardian, 18 September). On 22 September, the government U-turned on its earlier advice and began asking people to work from home if they could (Guardian, 22 September). A University of Warwick study found that the Eat Out to Help Out scheme had caused a ‘significant’ rise in new infections (Sky News, 30 October).

Untested, untraced

Despite the World Health Organisation warning that an effective contact-tracing system needed to be in place before lockdown was lifted (Guardian, 14 June), the UK’s privately-run test-and-trace system has lurched from one crisis to the next.

On 14 September, LBC radio requested a test in all of the top 10 virus hotspots in England. They discovered that no walk-in, drive-through or home tests were available.

In the week ending 7 October, the test-and-trace system recorded its worst-ever week for contact-tracing, reaching only 62.6 percent of close contacts of people who had tested positive in England (Independent, 15 October).

Moreover, documents released by SAGE in August noted that less than 20 percent of people in England fully self-isolate when asked to do so (Guardian, 11 September). This was even though SAGE have said 80 percent of the contacts of all symptomatic cases must be found and isolated to stop the virus spreading (Independent SAGE, 11 June).

Unsurprisingly, on 21 September, SAGE concluded the test-and-trace system was still only ‘having a marginal impact on transmission’.

Too little, too late – again

In August, experts began warning of the dangers of the surging virus, with a government report suggesting a ‘reasonable worst case scenario’ of 85,000 deaths across the UK this winter due to COVID-19 (BBC News, 29 August).

On 21 September, SAGE warned the government that the country faced a ‘very large epidemic with catastrophic consequences’, and recommended immediately introducing a national two-week ‘circuit-breaker’ lockdown to reduce the spread of coronavirus (Guardian, 13 October).

The government ignored this advice, instead introducing an ineffective 10pm curfew for pubs and restaurants, followed by a three-tiered system of restrictions in England on 12 October.

At the press conference announcing the new three-tier system, England’s chief medical officer, professor Chris Whitty, said: ‘I am not confident – and nor is anybody confident – that the Tier 3 proposals for the highest rates… would be enough to get on top of [the virus]’ (Sky News, 12 October).

Whitty was proven right. On 31 October – five and a half weeks after SAGE’s 21 September recommendation – the prime minister finally announced a national four-week lockdown for England, starting on 6 November. Primary and secondary schools and universities were to remain open.

Noting that there is ‘substantial transmission’ in secondary schools, professor Andrew Hayward, an epidemiologist at University College London and a member of SAGE, said that not closing them would likely mean ‘we may need to be in lockdown for longer than we might otherwise have to be’.

Hayward also explained that, if the government had instituted a two-week circuit-breaker lockdown when advised to by SAGE on 21 September, ‘we would definitely have saved thousands of lives and we would clearly have inflicted substantially less damage on our economy than the proposed four-week lockdown will do’ (BBC Radio 4 Today programme, 2 November).

Into action

As with the first wave, the government’s response to the recent surge has often been evidence-light, contradictory and, importantly for activists, vulnerable to external pressure.

For example, the government has twice been forced to change its policy on free school meals vouchers – which are given to around 1.3 million children in England. The Johnson administration had said these vouchers would stop during the summer holidays, but were driven into a U-turn in June. They then said that the vouchers would not be distributed over the Christmas holidays, but had to retreat on 8 November. Both times, the government were forced to climb down because of campaigns led by professional footballer Marcus Rashford, who received free school meals during his childhood.

The introduction of the second lockdown itself was another huge U-turn.

As late as 21 October, Boris Johnson said he opposed a national lockdown (Guardian, 31 October).

When Johnson announced the restrictions, he claimed ‘no responsible prime minister’ could ignore new data which showed ‘the virus is spreading even faster than the reasonable worst-case scenario of our scientific advisers’.

However, the Observer (31 October) reported ‘private anger among the government’s scientific advisers, who say that concerns about exceeding the reasonable worst-case scenarios had been known about for weeks’.

It seems likely, then, the government’s hand was forced by the reality of the surging virus combined with pressure from SAGE and the Labour party, public support for stronger measures (YouGov, 22 September), and the response of other nations (Ireland announced a second lockdown on 19 October, with France and Germany following on 28 October).

There are a couple of potentially game-changing issues that grassroots activists could rally around.

First, a campaign to transfer the crisis-ridden privatised track-and-trace system into public hands would be hugely popular with the public (Survation/HuffPost UK, 21 September) and unite trade unions, the Labour party, the Green party and groups like Keep Our NHS Public.

Second, activists could support the Socialist Campaign Group of 34 Labour MPs and the People’s Assembly who, along with the Independent SAGE expert group (7 July) and professor Devi Sridhar, chair of Global Public Health at the University of Edinburgh (Guardian, 22 June), are pushing the government to adopt a ‘Zero COVID’ strategy – in other words, the elimination of the virus from the UK.

With the UK death toll cautiously estimated to be 72,300 as of 10 November, according to the economics editor at the Financial Times – more than the number of UK civilians who died in the Second World War (House of Commons Library, 10 July 2012) – the extent to which progressive activists are able to challenge and help shift the government’s dangerous response to the pandemic continues to be of the utmost importance.

Ian Sinclair and Rupert Read have compiled – and are regularly updating – a detailed timeline of the government’s response to coronavirus:
www.tinyurl.com/peacenews3511

How public opposition has forced Tory government U-turns

How public opposition has forced Tory government U-turns
by Ian Sinclair
Morning Star
8 July 2020

While there are always some people who are quick to dismiss grassroots activism as ineffective, the last couple of months has provided inspiring case studies showing how protest can have a huge impact on the government and the wider political landscape.

For instance, the coronavirus crisis may have trapped most of us at home during lockdown, but public pressure has forced the government’s hand on several important issues.

In April a “cabinet source” spoke to the Telegraph about the government’s exit strategy from the lockdown. ‘It [the government] is waiting for the public to change their mind’, they noted. ‘We didn’t want to go down this route in the first place — public and media pressure pushed the lockdown, we went with the science.’

The government has also been pushed into making two embarrassing U-turns. As the Guardian recently explained: “The phased opening of schools in England began at the beginning of June, but the government shelved plans to get every primary school child back in class for at least a month before the summer holiday, in the face of the opposition from unions and some scientists.”

Even more spectacular was the government’s retreat on free school meals vouchers, which it had said would stop outside of term time, affecting about 1.3 million children in England.

In response the 22-year old Manchester United and England footballer Marcus Rashford wrote an open letter to the government explaining the importance of the scheme to children, highlighting his family’s reliance on the scheme when he was younger. Downing Street rejected his protest, with ministers sent out to defend the government’s position. However, with extensive media coverage and growing support the government reversed its position within 24-hours and confirmed free school meals vouchers would continue during school holidays.

And even when public opposition doesn’t win a clear victory over government – which is most of the time – it can still have important results. So the furore over Dominic Cummings breaking lockdown didn’t end with the Prime Minister’s closest adviser being sacked but it likely massively wounded him. As a “source” told the Telegraph last month: “People just aren’t scared of him any more. Everyone knows he is one wrong move from being out of a job.”

Sparked by the killing of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer on 25 May and subsequent demonstrations in the US, the Black Lives Matters protests in the UK have been hugely impactful too.

According to government figures, approximately 137,000 people attended more than 200 protests in the UK over the weekend of 6-7 June. After protesters toppled the statue of slaver Edward Colston on 7 June, Tower Hamlets council quickly removed the statue of slave trader Robert Milligan and Oriel College at Oxford University agreed to take down the statue of the imperialist Cecil Rhodes. The University of Liverpool has also agreed to rename a building named after former prime minister William Gladstone because of his links to the slave trade.

In addition, London Mayor Sadiq Khan announced he would set up a commission to review London’s landmarks to ensure they reflect the capital’s diversity. A day later the Guardian reported “all Labour councils in England and Wales said they would examine statues and monuments.”

More broadly, the protests have triggered a national conversation on British racism and colonialism, with renewed demands for Black history to be made a mandatory part of the national curriculum. And while there is already a slavery museum in Liverpool, there are growing calls for a national museum of slavery.

While coronavirus and the Black Lives Matter agitation have received extensive media coverage, another hugely important example of the power of protest seems was barely noticed by the mainstream media.

“For now, fracking is over”, Energy Minister Kwasi Kwarteng told the BBC’s North West Tonight programme on 18 June. “We had a moratorium on fracking last year and frankly the debate’s moved on. It is not something that we’re looking to do.”

As well as accurately describing Kwarteng’s statement as “a victory for the planet and our future existence on it”, Green Party peer Jenny Jones was correct when she told the Independent: “The end of fracking in the UK is a victory for all the campaigners who faced arrest in order to stop another climate chaos technology from taking root.”

Then Prime Minister David Cameron had announced the government was “going all out” for fracking in January 2014. He rejected calls for a moratorium on fracking a year later. However, with just a single well fracked in the UK since 2011, in 2018 the Guardian reported “Cameron has told US oil executives of his frustration that the UK has failed to embrace fracking despite his best efforts, and hit out at green groups for being ‘absolutely obsessed’ with blocking new fossil fuel extraction.”

A number of hopeful lessons can be taken from these successful struggles.

First, although the Tory Party won a majority of eighty seats in the December general election, the government is susceptible to public pressure at the moment.

Second, extra-parliamentary action is as important – arguably more important – than what happens in parliament. This is crucial to understand when the Labour Party is shifting away from the social movements and unions that backed Labour under Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership, and trying to project itself as a more professional and very much parliamentary-focussed alternative to the Tories. But this shift to the right doesn’t alter how change is made. As British author Gary Younge wrote in December: “progressive change is enacted through parliament, but it rarely begins there.”

Third, it is important not to be complacent. Yes, public pressure and direct action have changed government policy for the better, but this has only happened because of the hard work of campaigners over weeks, months, years, even decades. Citing the sociologist Charles Tilly, the historian Keith Flett had some wise words in a letter published in the Guardian last year: “Effective protest that leads to real change is a difficult thing to achieve and historically has required… an entire repertoire of contention”. To win more victories, and bigger and more important victories such as overturning the government’s inadequate response to the climate crisis, will require a huge and sustained surge in grassroots activism and organisation.

One of my favourite quotes – from former slave Frederick Douglass – is famous for a reason: because it is true. “Those who profess to favour freedom and yet depreciate agitation, are people who want crops without ploughing the ground; they want rain without thunder and lightning; they want the ocean without the roar of its many waters”, he said in 1857. “Power concedes nothing without a demand; it never has and it never will.”

Follow Ian on Twitter @IanJSinclair.

The UK government’s criminally negligent response to coronavirus

The UK government’s criminally negligent response to coronavirus
by Ian Sinclair
Peace News
June 2020

Due to the extraordinary nature of the crisis, the UK government has had an unprecedented opportunity to control the narrative about their response to the coronavirus pandemic. In addition to the daily Number 10 press briefings there has been a months-long, multi-faceted public information campaign using television and radio spots, social media posts, billboards, wrap around messaging on the front of all major newspapers and a letter to every household in the UK.

Despite this communications advantage, there has been increasing criticism of the government’s handling of the crisis from sections of the media, health and science experts, opposition political parties, trade unions and the general public.

In response, the government has rolled out a number of common retorts – they are ‘following the science’, their primary motivation has been to save lives, and it is easy to criticise in retrospect, as ex-cabinet minister baroness Nicky Morgan said on BBC Any Questions (22 May).

A careful reading of mainstream news reports tells a very different story – one which supports Lancet editor-in-chief Dr Richard Horton’s description of the government’s response as ‘a national scandal’ (BBC Question Time, 26 March). The UK’s official death toll of 41,969 as of 16 June – the highest in Europe, and the second highest in the world after the United States – confirms Horton’s criticism. Due to deficiencies in how deaths are recorded, the government’s figures are likely a significant underestimate: by the same date the Financial Times estimated the number of UK excess deaths linked to coronavirus to be 65,400.

‘It goes right back to 2010’

While nearly all media coverage has focused on the period since the outbreak in China in December 2019, the UK government’s reaction has much deeper roots. ‘It goes right back to 2010, when the [Tory-Liberal Democrat coalition] government came in with a very clear policy to reduce public spending across the board, including the National Health Service’, sir David King, the former chief scientific adviser, told LBC radio on 15 April when asked about the UK’s response being slower than other countries. ‘I’m afraid these austerity measures did lead to the cutting back on the risk management programmes’.

The government also ignored several warnings about the possibility of a pandemic and its lack of preparedness. In October 2016 a three-day training called Exercise Cygnus was held on how to deal with a pandemic, involving all major government departments, the NHS and local authorities. According to the Sunday Telegraph (28 March) the unpublished report of the exercise concluded ‘There was not enough personal protective equipment (PPE) for the nation’s doctors and nurses’ and ‘the NHS was about to “fall over” due to a shortage of ventilators and critical care beds’.

Publishing a leaked copy of the report on 7 May, the Guardian provided more detail: ‘it contained 26 key recommendations, including boosting the capacity of care homes and the numbers of staff available to work in them’ and ‘warned of the challenge facing homes asked to take in patients from hospitals.’

A senior academic directly involved in Exercise Cygnus and the current pandemic noted ‘These exercises are supposed to prepare government for something like this – but it appears they were aware of the problem but didn’t do much about it’ (Sunday Telegraph, 28 March).

In September 2017 the National Risk Register Of Civil Emergencies was published by the Cabinet Office, noting ‘there is a high probability of a flu pandemic occurring’ with ‘up to 50% of the UK population experiencing symptoms, potentially leading to between 20,000 and 750,000 fatalities and high levels of absence from work.’

More recently, on 30 January 2020 the World Health Organisation (WHO) declared a ‘public health emergency of international concern’. According to David Nabarro, professor of global health at Imperial College, London, ‘That is the highest level of alert that WHO can issue… It made it very clear then – to every country in the world – that we were facing something very serious indeed’ (Guardian, 18 April).

Herd immunity

Though ministers have repeatedly denied it, the concept of ‘herd immunity’ seems to have been central to the government’s response plan (herd immunity is when a large majority of the population are infected and therefore gain immunity and stop the spread of the virus).

The government’s stated ‘mitigation’ strategy – to delay the spread of the virus, and reduce and broaden the peak so the NHS is not overwhelmed – fits with the goal of herd immunity, as chief scientific advisor sir Patrick Vallance explained on the BBC Today programme (Guardian, 13 March).

According to a ‘senior politician’, the chief medical officer Chris Whitty was ‘absolutely focused on herd immunity’ when they spoke in late January (Sunday Times, 19 April). The prime minister Boris Johnson himself floated the idea – without naming it – on ITV’s This Morning on 5 March. Speaking to the BBC Today Programme on 13 March, sir Patrick said one of ‘the key things we need to do’ is ‘build up some kind of herd immunity so more people are immune to this disease and we reduce the transmission’.

There are two huge problems with herd immunity – both widely understood in March, if not before. First, the estimated mortality rates of the virus – around 1% (Guardian, 7 March) – means a large number of people would die by the time the UK achieved herd immunity. Putting these figures together with the 66.6 million population of the UK, we would end up with around half a million deaths in order to achieve the 80 percent level of people with antibodies.

Second, there was – and still is – ‘no clear evidence people who had suffered the virus would have lasting antibody protection’ (Sunday Times, 24 May). As WHO spokeswoman Margaret Harris told the BBC Today programme on 14 March: ‘We don’t know enough about the science of this virus, it hasn’t been in our population for long enough for us to know what it does in immunological terms’.

Despite these deadly flaws, the government’s herd immunity plan to manage rather than suppress the spread of the virus likely shaped other decisions that have led to thousands of unnecessary deaths, including ending the quarantining of people arriving at UK airports from coronavirus hotspots on 13 March (Financial Times, 23-24 May), the cancellation of contact tracing and mass testing, and the delayed national lockdown.

Ditching tracing and testing

When people started getting infected in the UK, the government established a programme to test suspected cases and trace people they had been in contact with. However, on 12 March the government announced it would no longer try to ‘track and trace’ everyone suspected of having the virus, while testing would be limited to patients in hospital with serious breathing problems (Guardian, 13 March).

This U-turn contradicted WHO recommendations. ‘The most effective way to prevent infections and save lives is breaking the chains of transmission. And to do that, you must test and isolate’, WHO Director General said on 16 March. ‘You cannot fight a fire blindfolded. And we cannot stop this pandemic if we don’t know who is infected.’

‘We have a simple message for all countries: test, test, test. Test every suspected case’, he noted: ‘If they test positive, isolate them and find out who they have been in close contact with… and test those people too’ (WHO, 16 March).

On 17 April the Health Secretary belatedly announced the government would restart tracing the contacts of people who have had coronavirus symptoms, with 1 June as the planned start date.

Too slow to lockdown

On 24 January professor Neil Ferguson, from Imperial College’s School of Public Health and a member of the government’s Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (SAGE) committee, submitted a report to ministers and officials. According to the Sunday Times (19 April), the report noted ‘There needed to be a 60% cut in the transmission rate — which meant stopping contact between people. In layman’s terms it meant a lockdown’.

Similarly, on 26 February infectious disease modeller professor John Edmunds and his team from the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine presented their latest ‘worst scenario’ predictions to the government’s Scientific Pandemic Influenza group on modelling (SPI-M).

This group advises the country’s scientific decision-makers on SAGE. ‘It warned that 27 million people could be infected and 220,000 intensive care beds would be needed if no action were taken to reduce infection rates’, the Sunday Times (19 April) reported. ‘The predicted death toll was 380,000. Edmunds’ colleague Nick Davies, who led the research, says the report emphasised the urgent need for a lockdown’.

A further investigation by the Sunday Times (24 May) reported that modelling teams from Imperial College London and the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine separately concluded that if the government’s mitigation strategy continued, there could be approximately 250,000 deaths – results they passed onto SAGE on 3 March.

However, the government only implemented a national lockdown on 23 March. Back-dated modelling by Oxford University estimates there were just 14,000 infected people in the UK on 3 March. By 23 March the number was likely to have been 1.5 million. ‘Those 20 days of government delay are the single most important reason why the UK has the second highest number of deaths from the coronavirus in the world’, the Sunday Times (24 May) notes.

Exiting lockdown

After coming under pressure to set out an ‘exit strategy’ from right-wing Tories and the leaders of the Scottish National Party (The Times, 24 April) and Labour party (Guardian, 15 April), on 10 May the prime minister Boris Johnson announced a loosening of the lockdown. He urged people in jobs such as construction and manufacturing to return to work, gave permission for unlimited outdoor exercise and suggested shops might open in June.

However, with new daily cases estimated to be 20,000 (The Times, 8 May) and a contact tracing programme still not in place, many experts were quick to warn it was too early to loosen the lockdown. Professor Edmunds warned that the current level of cases made it ‘probably impossible’ to control the outbreak through contact tracing (The Times, 8 May).

David Hunter, professor of Epidemiology and Medicine at the University of Oxford, noted ‘If we take the prime minister’s advice and return to work in large numbers now – and without the ability to test, trace and isolate – then virus spread will increase, there will be super-spreader events and local or regional lockdowns will have to be reconsidered’ (Guardian, 11 May). Professor Devi Sridhar, chair of global public health at the University of Edinburgh, said the UK did not ‘have in place the basic building blocks of surveillance to actually know who has the virus’ and therefore ‘what we are going to see is cases are going to go up… the virus is going to continue spreading and in a few weeks we are going to have this exact same debate again’ (BBC Question Time, 14 May).

The importance of activism

Notwithstanding the government’s criminally negligent response to the crisis and the huge UK death toll, there is some hopeful evidence the government and Tory party are worried about public opinion, and susceptible to public pressure.

Citing one senior MP, in early April the Guardian noted the Tory party was ‘watching the polls closely’ (2 April), while on 18 April the Telegraph published a revealing quote from a ‘cabinet source’ about the government’s exit strategy from the lockdown. ‘It [the government] is waiting for the public to change their mind’, they noted. ‘We didn’t want to go down this route in the first place — public and media pressure pushed the lockdown, we went with the science.’ And following reports the prime minister’s adviser Dominic Cummings had breached the lockdown, the Guardian noted MPs ‘said they were motivated by anger among their constituents’ (30 May), while the Telegraph reported some Tory MPs ‘said they would wait to see how their constituents responded before passing judgement’ (26 May).

Unlike the UK’s response to the climate crisis, post-9/11 foreign policy or anti-nuclear weapons activism, this influence has come about without any organised national grassroots campaign or group informing and directing public outrage and resistance.

Activists, then, have an important role to play in maximising pressure on the government, including tracking and drawing attention to government failures, establishing campaign groups and organising a coordinated response.

Why the government is wrong to say the NHS hasn’t been overwhelmed by Covid-19

Why the government is wrong to say the NHS hasn’t been overwhelmed by Covid-19
by Ian Sinclair

Morning Star
30 June 2020

Appearing on the BBC Today Programme on 6 April the Health Secretary noted a “core goal” during the pandemic was “making sure the NHS isn’t overwhelmed.”

“Which everybody was telling me a month ago was impossible to achieve but that has been achieved”, Matt Hancock said.

The Prime Minister exhibited even more audacity at the end of April. The UK had “avoided the tragedy that engulfed other parts of the world”, he bragged, seemingly unaware the UK had one of the highest death tolls in the world. How could Boris Johnson make this claim? “Because at no stage has our NHS been overwhelmed”, he said.

Showing its gullible establishment colours, the Guardian repeated the government’s narrative, stating on 17 April that the NHS “has been able to cope”.

In reality these statements are only true if you ignore some very obvious, inconvenient facts.

First, news reports have confirmed that in mid-March the NHS was ordered to discharge 15,000 patients from hospital to free up space for people with Covid-19.

Hundreds were sent to care homes, which “were put under pressure by the NHS to accept people at short notice”, the Times reported on 15 May. Moreover, “people were not tested before being moved” (only on 16 April did the government announce patients would be tested before being discharged into care homes). This exodus seems to have been enabled by Public Health England’s National Infection Service changing their guidance on discharging patients from hospital on 19 March, which meant “hospitals no longer needed to avoid sending patients to care homes, a decision which was heavily criticised”, the Telegraph reported on 6 May.

Quoted in the Times on 13 April, Robert Kilgour, owner of Renaissance Care which runs 15 care homes in Scotland, said there was “huge discouragement by the authorities to hospitalise, a wish to keep them where they are and look after them where they are”. He also mentioned “instances of ambulances taking residents to hospital and returning and coming straight back.” This is confirmed by Professor Martin Green, spokesperson for Care England’s larger care companies, who told the Guardian’s Polly Toynbee some areas had “blanket policies not to admit residents to hospital.”

During Prime Minister’s Questions on 13 May, Labour Party leader Keir Starmer read out testimony from a cardiologist: “We discharged known, suspected and unknown cases into care homes which were unprepared with no formal warning that patients were infected, no testing available and no PPE [Personal Protective Equipment] to prevent transmission. We actively seeded this into the very population that was most vulnerable”.

As Toynbee summarises: “The NHS was only saved, Green alleges, because hospitals dumped the crisis on care homes.”

The government’s policy of discharging patients from hospitals during the pandemic was likely a key reason why the death toll is so high in care homes – at least 15,000 people have died in UK care homes from confirmed or suspected Covid-19, the Guardian reported on 14 June.

Another reason why the government’s claim the NHS wasn’t overwhelmed doesn’t hold water is because the government artificially suppressed demand for the NHS – by discouraging people from accessing NHS services during the early stages of the crisis.

On 16 March the government said people should only use the NHS “where we really need to”, and get advice on the NHS website where possible.

This messaging caused predictable results. In March “the number of people going to their local emergency department fell by 600,000, or 29 per cent, compared to same month last year”, the Independent reported.

More broadly, at the end of April the Guardian revealed “Doctors have postponed more than 2m operations after non-emergency surgery was cancelled for at least three months to free up beds for coronavirus patients.” It will take “many years” for the NHS to get back to a good position, the president of the Royal College of Surgeons commented.

It’s worth considering what so-called non-emergency care really means. “Almost two-thirds of Britons with common life-threatening conditions have been denied care by the NHS because hospitals have focused on fighting Covid-19”, the Guardian noted earlier this month, citing research from Essex University. “Seven out of 10 people with diabetes, 65% of those with high blood pressure and 64% of people suffering from breathing problems have had care cancelled by the NHS across the UK during the pandemic.”

According to Cancer Research UK nearly 2.5 million Britons have not been screened, tested or treated for cancer because of the disruption to the NHS during the crisis. They estimate more than 24,000 cases of cancer have likely gone undiagnosed as a result of this suspension of normal services, with the delays in treatment meaning some people’s disease is now inoperable.

So, yes, technically the NHS might not have been overwhelmed during the crisis. But this was only because the government recklessly discharged thousands of vulnerable patients – including infected people – into care homes and the community, discouraged the public not to access healthcare, and massively cut back on NHS services, thus creating huge long-term problems for the NHS and additional pain and suffering for thousands of people.

Appalling though it is, the government’s claim to have successfully protected the NHS is just one dangerous deception amongst many in what has arguably been the largest campaign of government deceit since Iraq.

And the lies are never-ending. Just this month a new analysis by the Guardian found that in April “more than 1,000 people died [from Covid-19] every day in the UK for 22 consecutive days – in stark contrast with daily tolls announced by the government”. Sir David King, the former Chief Scientific Adviser, said the gap between the government’s figures and the true death toll was “an attempt to play down the adversity that the country was faced with”.

On 20 May Boris Johnson told the House of Commons “We have growing confidence that we will have a test, track and trace operation that will be world-beating and yes, it will be in place by June 1”. Yet on 18 June the government announced it had abandoned its coronavirus contact-tracing app – “after spending three months and millions of pounds on technology that experts had repeatedly warned would not work”, the Guardian reported.  On the same day the independent Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies, made up of preeminent science and medical experts from the UK and around the world, described the government’s wider contact tracing system as “not fit for purpose”. They noted figures released by the government reveal “extensive data gaps” and “the actual number of daily and weekly cases in the community is unknown because testing has been chaotic and haphazard”. Therefore, “we do not know how many cases have been missed and have not been transferred for contact tracing”. Furthermore, the group noted “we have no idea how many people contacted are actually isolating and what health or other support they are receiving”.

This Inspector Clouseau-level of incompetence means the results of the University of Oxford’s Blavatnik School of Government Lockdown Rollback Checklist shouldn’t be a surprise. Published on 1 June and ranking countries according to the extent they meet the World Health Organisation’s recommendations for rolling back lockdown, the UK appears in 167th place in a league table of 170 nations.

With the poor and BAME people making up a disproportionate number of the more than 63,000 excess deaths in the UK the Office for National Statistics estimates due to Covid-19, as ever it’s the most vulnerable members of society who bear the brunt of the government’s criminal negligence.

Follow Ian on Twitter @IanJSinclair.