The Observer’s take on the government’s flawed winter plan for Covid | Editorial observer

A small room, with the windows closed, crowded with more than 30 people, none wearing masks. This is the image the government released last week of Boris Johnson’s cabinet reshuffle in its first meeting. People around the table may have changed, but the fundamentals remain: It is still a government determined to cut support for low-wage parents during a pandemic and to target asylum seekers in its drive to stoke poverty. culture war. And it is still a government acting with blatant hypocrisy with its measures to control the pandemic. Ministers say they “expect” us to wear masks in crowded and closed spaces, but that expectation does not appear to extend to the senior politicians who run the country.

With the Prime Minister and his cabinet publicly flouting their own guidelines, it is perhaps no wonder that the wearing of masks has declined significantly since mid-July, when the government made face covering in England a recommendation rather than ‘an obligation in public transport and in shops. Polls suggest that only six in 10 people had worn a mask in public places in the past two weeks, up from seven in 10 a few weeks earlier.

This is concerning because, although two-thirds of the population are fully immunized, the pandemic is far from over. Infection rates have stabilized in England after a sharp increase until mid-July, but there is great uncertainty as to what will happen this fall, with most experts predicting cases to rise further due to the spread of Covid in schools. While the vaccination campaign has dramatically reduced death rates and the booster program for people over 50 and clinically vulnerable people will help fight the decline in immunity, the vaccines offer substantial protection but not 100% against hospitalization. If hospital admission rates continue to rise, the repercussions on the health of the country will be severe. This is because the NHS has so little available capacity, both due to a decade of underfunding and the impact Covid-19 has had on waiting lists, treatment of vital diseases such as cancer being delayed. Clinicians expect greater pressure than usual from severe respiratory viruses and influenza due to reduced population immunity due to social distancing over the past year; if hospital cases of Covid increase significantly, it will have a profound impact on people who have already waited months for life-changing surgery, such as hip replacement.

The lack of urgency in the government’s winter plan for Covid, released last week, is extraordinary in light of this. It is clear that the government has abandoned almost any focus on so-called “non-pharmaceutical interventions”, such as wearing masks and improving ventilation in buildings, especially in schools, in the hope that vaccinations alone will be enough to get us through the winter. – his “plan A”. Some measures in Plan A – tests for travelers entering from Orange List countries – were removed barely 48 hours after the publication of the winter plan. The government said it would only invoke “plan B” – mandatory face coverings in some settings, more homework where possible, and the introduction of vaccine passports – in response to the data ” concerning ”.

It does not mean anything. Wearing a mask in public spaces is an inexpensive and effective way to reduce the level of community infections. The cost of providing good ventilation in schools is paltry compared to the much higher costs the NHS has to delay urgent care for non-Covid conditions. Yet the government has chosen to delay the reintroduction of mandatory mask wearing until the NHS situation, which is already under pressure, with non-urgent treatment levels significantly below normal thanks to Covid, worsens . It has not invested in ventilation technology for schools, despite months to prepare for the return of schools this fall; no money has been allocated to improve ventilation in schools since January. Instead, the government launched a pilot program, involving just a handful of schools in Bradford, to test the effectiveness of measures to improve ventilation – when experts say there are more than enough existing evidence to justify spending now to improve ventilation in all schools, as many other countries have done. This is particularly worrying given the delay in extending the vaccination program to 12-15 year olds, which means most adolescents will go to school during the first weeks of this term without being vaccinated.

A successful immunization program cannot make up for the other serious mistakes the government has made in this pandemic. The government has repeatedly taken too long to introduce measures to control the pandemic, resulting in tens of thousands of more than needed deaths and longer and more costly social restrictions. It has also been too reluctant to control the pandemic using measures other than vaccines, such as the delay in introducing travel restrictions from India earlier this year, which allowed the Delta variant to seed in the country. UK much faster than it would have otherwise. The government continues to make these mistakes as autumn approaches: it sends confusing signals about mask wearing and erodes very important social norms that hold up well in other countries.

Why is the government so recklessly abandoning relatively inexpensive measures that would further improve the effectiveness of the immunization program, preferring instead to wait until things get worse before introducing them? It’s the product of a Prime Minister trying to make up for his lack of an agenda by showing the public that the vaccine rollout has brought back to life its pre-Covid normalcy. Wearing a mask required, investing in ventilation technology for schools: none of this is practical for this story. However, the government’s lax approach simply increases the risk that people will not receive the essential health care they need this winter. That he sees it as a risk to be taken shows Boris Johnson has learned nothing from the tragic mistakes of the past 18 months.

This article was modified on September 19, 2021 because an earlier version referred to “the Prime Minister and his cabinet posting their own guidelines [on mask wearing]”. The intended word was “to flout”.

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