The campaign to beat the pandemic

Comment The Scottish government has abandoned an elimination strategy

06 July 2021 / Mike Downham

On 22 June Nicola Sturgeon finally abandoned the policy of virus elimination, and on the 29 June told us that the virus cases had peaked. The next day the number of new cases rose again, and on 1 July broke the 4,000 new case barrier.

The Coronavirus doesn’t listen to politicians, it simply reproduces in the circumstances that it finds. In Scotland it finds a partially vaccinated population, poor workplace health and safety, inadequate infection controls and a creaking test, track and trace system.

Scotland now has the highest rate of new Covid cases in Europe except for Russia. Deaths from Covid are rising steadily, indicating that the ‘decoupling’ of cases from deaths predicted by the Scottish Government as a result of vaccination isn’t happening.

Nicola Sturgeon is ignoring infection rates as long as the NHS can cope, and confirming that all remaining restrictions will be lifted between 19 July and 9 August. She’s peddling a tandem from the back seat – steered now by a new UK Minister of Health who is even more fanatical about ‘freedom’ than his predecessor.

This is how epidemiologist Deepti Gurdasani summed up the case against Boris Johnson at the ninth and last session of the People’s Covid Enquiry this week, sadly, since 22 June, it’s hard to spot anything different in the attitude of the Scottish Government:

I think it’s been a strategy of negligent manslaughter, but I think that’s generous because it’s not negligent. It’s essentially a policy where they [the UK Government] have been fully informed on the risks to public health, the risk of mass deaths, the risk of suffering, but have gone ahead with this anyway because these risks and the impact on people were considered acceptable.

The values that have been inherent with this government is a lack of value for life. It’s never too late to return to public health measures. People have consistently followed the rules, it’s just that the rules have been wrong. We’ve done nothing to protect the only strategy that we have. The biggest lesson we need to learn is that we cannot live with this [Covid].

Gurdasani’s last phrase can be interpreted in two ways – that as long as Covid infections are allowed to spread none of us can feel safe from death; or that we must not accept what the Government is asking us to accept – to put up with Covid as an unavoidable long-term presence in our lives. Both meanings are correct.

The reason none of us can feel safe from death if infections are allowed to spread unchecked is that more infections give the virus more opportunity to mutate and therefore make it more likely that dangerous variants will emerge. The current Delta variant is much more transmissible, partially evades current vaccines, and probably causes more severe illness. There is no reason why even more dangerous variants shouldn’t emerge soon. The only way of preventing them is to keep the number of new cases low.

But there’s more to life than dodging death. There are the continuing serious impacts on quality of life for the many people, including children, whose Covid illnesses may affect their health for years, and for both staff and residents in care homes for the elderly.

There are many other groups of people whose well-being has been severely compromised over the last 16 months of alternating waves of infection and restrictions. There are those who are grieving for lost loved ones, some of whom gave moving testimonies at the People’s Covid Enquiry. There are those who have endured the stressful daily experience of working in dangerous workplaces – call centres, delivery services, schools, hospitals, food retail, for example – stressful because the risk of infection at work is obvious, because of the often fruitless fight with their employers to make their workplace safer, and because they often have to double up for colleagues who are off work isolating. Those whose homes are crowded and poorly ventilated. Those who have become so strapped for cash that they have to choose between putting the next meal on the table or turning down the heating. Those whose mental well-being has been broken by worry, loneliness, financial difficulty, threats of eviction or lost jobs. Those with cancer whose investigations or treatment were delayed, sometimes fatally. And there are all the young people who have struggled with broken social networks, education difficulties and job scarcity as they set out into adult life.

Then this week we were given the results of BBC research into how people with disabilities have fared during the epidemic. Of the more than 3,300 people who participated in the research, 2,604 said their mental health had got worse; 2,427 said that their disability had deteriorated; 683 had seen all of their health appointments cancelled or had been unable to attend them; 241 had not left the house at all. All this is too often forgotten.

This week too Chris Whitty, Chief Medical Officer, was physically assaulted in a London park by two antivax demonstrators. A society whose elected representatives do not value life as an unarguable priority is a society which breeds violence.

And yet we don’t have to accept the way society has become over the 16 months of Covid. Because at the same time it’s become increasingly clear that we can get infections and their multiple consequences under control. There’s a long history of successful control of many other infectious diseases through common-sense but persistent public health measures, often with the help of vaccination, though never by vaccination alone. We don’t have to live with plague, cholera, smallpox, malaria, typhoid, rabies, polio, measles, or SARS. And other countries or parts of countries, from the Isle of Man to China, have controlled Covid-19.

The Zero Covid Scotland campaign continues to update its detailed recommendations for controlling Covid-19 in Scotland. For the latest update of these recommendations see The campaign makes its recommendations available to the Scottish Government, but the Government isn’t listening. It’s time for those who have been most severely impacted by Covid, and who would most benefit from its control to come together to make their voices heard.

To support them the campaign is working to set up a public event to give an opportunity for some of these people to describe their experiences of uncontrolled Covid. ‘Let the people speak: The real Covid story’ is scheduled for Saturday 4 September. Watch this space.

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