The Tories are blundering back to herd immunity

Daily new confirmed Covid 19 cases (rolling 7-day average) to 26 September - The number of confirmed cases is lower than the number of actual cases; the main reason for that is limited testing.

By Charlie Wilson

Coronavirus: Infections and deaths rising

The strategy the Johnson government claims it has adopted is to suppress the virus and reduce the deaths until a vaccine or highly effective treatment arrives. Unfortunately the measures it has adopted and its competence have proved inadequate for their strategy to succeed. The second wave of infections is rising fast, not being suppressed, and deaths are on the rise again. Through opening up the economy, schools and universities, the virus is being allowed to let rip. The government is defacto blundering back to ‘herd immunity’.

That situation is very clear. After three months of government attempts to pretend to themselves (and us) that it was possible to get the economy moving again while the virus was still out of control – and with no effective system for controlling it – infections are increasing very rapidly again. 

Known infections are running at ten times the rate they were on March 22, when Boris Johnson was forced to announce the first lockdown. 665 then. 6187 on Sept 24. The comparison looks like this. 

A lot has been made of the lower death rate now compared to the known infection rate, but this is largely a function of increased testing which – despite its evident inadequacies – is far more extensive than in March: at which time Chris Whitty speculated that there were probably ten times as many cases out there that we didn’t know about than those that had been confirmed by tests. If that was a reasonable estimate, that would mean that known and unknown infections in March were running at about the same level as the known infections now. 

The death rates are also comparable. The actual deaths announced on Sept 24 – 37 – are getting close to the comparable figure for March 22 – 47 (adjusted to fit the government’s current method of counting them). The seven-day rolling average collated by the FT to iron out daily fluctuations however, has a UK death rate of 25.4 for the week ending Sept 24 and 25.9 for the week ending March 20. That looks like this.

So, we are in pretty much the same place as we were just before the first lockdown was announced. The trajectory of increase is lower at the moment, but the direction is clear.

Government’s new measures totally inadequate

Although the first lockdown was lackadaisical by European standards, the current “touch on the brakes” is almost ludicrous in its attempt to find a formula to ride the tiger and “live with” the virus by “balancing” between closing down and opening up; and falls flat on its face between the two.

It took China six weeks of social mobilisation around a serious lockdown to effectively eliminate domestic infections and keep deaths low – under 5000 people. Having done so, they have a solid foundation to reopen their economy. The OECD projects that China will be the only G20 country to grow this year. 

After six months of muddle and ten times the deaths – even on the most conservative figures – the UK is standing on sand. The government neither has the infection rate under control, nor a strategy to eliminate it, and therefore zero prospect of a successful economic recovery on any basis at all. Instead we have the prospect of another six months of stop, go, indecisive, half-hearted measures; while they wait with their fingers crossed for a vaccine to arrive like an anti-viral cavalry coming over the hill. While this might not be completely Trump style magical thinking in the way that Johnson’s “Moonshot” speculation was, there is no certainty that a vaccine will work, nor be capable of being produced on the necessary scale even by the end of the six-month period they are sketching ahead. Waiting for the vaccine could be like waiting for Godot.

In the meantime, we could instead do what China did and pursue a zero Covid strategy. This would need a government guarantee for jobs and rapid state investment in a recovery once the virus is eliminated domestically that shifts our society sharply towards sustainable carbon reduction. No brainers you might think. But, with this government, you’ll be holding your breath for a long time in more ways than one.