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What a difference a week makes. Just seven days ago, Boris Johnson was cautiously optimistic at his Downing Street press conference, confirming that today’s pubs and hugs release would go as planned. By the end of the month, he said, we would find out if the social distancing rules would be completely abolished by June 21.
As the heavens opened across the country, some people were certainly relieved that pints and outdoor meals were no longer their only options. Unfortunately, the highly transmissible so-called “Indian variant” of Covid, the virus formerly known as B 1617.2, really rained on the Prime Minister’s parade.
Perhaps that is why Johnson was nowhere to be seen on that longed-for day of deliverance and relief. He wasn’t in front of the cameras getting a frothy beer or a glass of fruity wine. And he definitely did not give another press conference, especially since he admitted last Friday that the date of June 21 could be derailed by the new variant.
Instead, it was left to the Prime Minister’s official spokesman to signal that the timetable could be changed. On his boss’s commitment to post the social distancing review, he replied, “We need time to assess the latest data on this variant, which was first identified in India. Therefore I will not give a fixed time for it. “
That was just the beginning of the softening process. The spokesman also refused to rule out a return to tiered or local bans. And with evidence that more than half of those who were at the Bolton hospital on the new variant had refused to take a bump, he gently warned that the reluctant vaccine would put the over-50s on only one dose would endanger. People with immunity problems [like cancer patients] Anyone who had two cans was also threatened by the new variant.
“We want everyone to think … both of others and of themselves when considering whether to get the vaccine,” the spokesman said. In his Commons update, Health Secretary Matt Hancock revealed the detailed detail of the variant increase: 2,323 cases (an increase of 76% in just four days); 86 municipalities with five or more cases.
The main message from Hancock, however, was that the surge in Bolton cases showed that “it is the unvaccinated who end up in the hospital”. That wasn’t necessarily true, as even his detailed statistics showed. Of 18 people hospitalized in Bolton yesterday, 5 had been vaccinated once, 1 person twice and 12 had not been thrust at all. What was decisive, however, was that of these 12 the “majority” was eligible for a push, but had not taken it.
Hancock’s words echoed Message # 10 that the “vaccine should hesitantly” begin to think about both others and itself. But even if the ministers so subtly hinted that the spread of the Indian variant is now basically a question of personal responsibility, there was a strong argument that it should also be a question of government responsibility.
And Yvette Cooper was quick to pounce on the role Downing Street had played when she put India on the “Red List” of countries not much earlier.
In a long session, Hancock answered questions from around 50 MPs. But he didn’t answer any of the Coopers. How many of the 2,323 cases were from people traveling direct from India? How many caught it from others who have been to India? With Indian travelers on April 7th having a covid rate fifty times higher than residents of the UK, what had that rate risen to by April 19 when the nation was finally redlisted?
Hancock ducked and insisted that the government take scientific advice at all times. He said he put India on the hazard list even before B 1617.2 was officially classified as a “variant of observation” let alone “variant of concern”. “We have to make decisions based on the evidence,” he said.
It’s worth noting that the evidence from the Indian variant hotspots has been mixed so far (some areas have suppressed it) and that the UK’s superior genome sequencing is likely why we found so many more cases than other countries. Early data suggests our vaccines work well against this. The mood in Whitehall, however, is such that one has to be prepared for delays until the complete data picture emerges.
Don’t forget that in March, Chris Whitty told the Commons Sci and Tech Committee that there were really large groups of changes in each stage of the roadmap. Today is a very good example: hugging, mixing indoors, movie theaters, pubs, opening of restaurants and hotels, exercise classes, sporting events, major weddings and funerals. Each of these data bits must also be evaluated without complications of an Indian variant.
Despite the Prime Minister’s statement last week that “certainly our intention” is to quit work from home if you can, some scholars are already saying it is like one of several measures (like a mask) feels like keeping this edict in effect (wearing) would be an easy way to simply buy more time to absorb today’s changes.
Hancock admitted that we had enough vaccine supplies to stab those over 12, so this too could be another weapon. Smaller steps from June 21st instead of another “big bang” of relaxation may make more sense.
Given Johnson’s caution on this final lockdown, driven by an intense desire to ensure this is the last national lockdown ever, the next few days will be a big test. B 1617.2 forces him to accept that “data not data “are more than just a soundbite.
If the variant is included quickly, ministers will likely be more than happy to take their share of the loan. But when it starts it feels like they don’t want to share the guilt.