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Herd Immunity 2 for England, What next for Wales?

Jonathan Edwards: Welsh Government's communications a gift to those opposed to devolution

THE BRITISH Government’s big announcement this last week was that July 19th will be Freedom Day for England.

More or less all Covid-19 restrictions will be lifted, despite concerns that the rapid increase in daily Covid case rates means that the UK is set for a third wave of infections driven by the now dominant Delta variant.

The British Government justify their decision by asking if not now, then when?

They argue that if restrictions can’t be lifted in the summer, then doing so in the Autumn and Winter would also be ruled out because of the increased pressure on the NHS during these months. That would leave Spring 2022 as the next window of opportunity.

They are taking their chance now which means that instead of having to follow Government guidelines, people in England will be asked to use their own judgement and take personal responsibility.

This is the proverbial political hospital pass: transferring responsibility from the government to its citizens.

If the strategy blows up, Ministers will wave away criticism and blame irresponsible individuals.

The fatal flaw in this logic of course is that even the most cautious amongst us can still catch a respiratory disease if other people aren’t quite as cautious.

True containment can only be achieved on a communal basis, which is why setting out clear rules to which everyone must adhere is the fairest way to manage the situation.

What the British Government aren’t being honest about is that their policy for England is based on the strategy of herd immunity.

That is to say, they hope that a combination of vaccines and infections will mean that by Winter there will be no one left to infect.

They calculate that the virus can be let to rip amongst younger generations because they are more resilient, whilst confident that the older and more vulnerable groups will have been fully vaccinated and so saved from developing life-threatening symptoms.

Even if we can leave aside the implications of this strategy for immuno-suppressed people who aren’t able to receive a vaccine and are extremely vulnerable to infection, there is no avoiding the fact that this is a huge experiment by the British Government, and the people of England are the crash test dummies.

The Financial Times reported this week that infections are doubling every nine to ten days under the current restrictions.

We can expect these figures to multiply further following Freedom Day.

Indeed, England’s new Health Secretary has admitted that cases could reach 100,000 a day by the height of summer.

Although vaccination has cut the mortality rate from 0.8% to 0.1% of infected individuals – 100,000 cases per day would still equate to an extra 3,000 hospital admissions, and 100 deaths per day.

Whilst the data currently suggests that the Pfizer vaccine is 96% effective and AstraZeneca 92% effective against hospitalisation after 2 doses, early data from Israel indicates that two Pfizer jabs are only 64% effective at preventing infection.

Scientists are concerned that this creates the perfect conditions for the virus to mutate.

We saw how quickly the Delta variant displaced the Alpha variant.

If the foundations upon which the UK Government are building their vaccine wall isn’t as solid as expected and a vaccine beating variant emerges over the summer, then we will be back to square one.

The key question in all this, as always, is what level of pressure can health services accommodate?

If case numbers fly through the roof, it is inevitable that hospital admissions will increase.

And then there is the unchartered territory of long Covid, the term used for those who have had Covid-19 and are still experiencing persistent health problems after the infection.

Having known individuals who have suffered from other post-viral conditions such as fibromyalgia, the social and economic devastation could be immeasurable.

Worryingly, the latest data suggest that vaccination does not prevent those who are infected from being at risk of developing long Covid.

We won’t find out the trajectory of Welsh policy until this week.

I am heartened that Welsh Ministers say they will follow the science.

However, I am concerned that our room for manoeuvre has been severely curtailed by the British Government’s decision for England.

The porous nature of the border between both countries means that if the virus is exploding in England, exposure to the virus in Wales will inevitably increase.

This brings me to my final question.

Were the Welsh, Scottish, Northern Ireland, and even the Irish Republic, Governments consulted about Freedom Day?

Were they asked at all about the potential implications for their public health strategies?

Reports in the media suggest not.

It is of course for every nation, and every Government, to set their own policy, but the UK Government must recognise that if they take risks, there will be implications for how Covid spreads across the UK.

In a matter of life and death, in the middle of a global pandemic, England’s gamble proves beyond doubt that the British State isn’t fit for purpose.