Yesterday, there was a provisional explanation on why it has been proving near impossible to bring the rate of Covid-19 infections under control in the South East. The virus has mutated. The new variant is not known to be more dangerous in health outcomes – illness or death – but it is spreading much faster. That’s pushed the R number – the reproduction rate of the virus – up to danger levels.
That’s why Boris Johnson has bowed to scientific advice and all but abandoned plans for a socially mixed Christmas. And yesterday he put around one third of England into the new Tier 4 heavyweight lockdown.
There are no changes here in Shropshire, except with the reduction of social mixing over Christmas. Over the border, Wales entered a new lockdown last night, a day earlier than planned.
These changes are essential. But they will increase loneliness and damage wellbeing and mental health.
The new variant is far more transmissible. It could be moving from person to person 70 per cent faster than the Covid-19 variant we have been experiencing since the end of last winter. That seems to be why it has proved difficult to control the spread of coronavirus in London, Essex and north Kent. Those areas are now in Tier 4 lockdown. The R number in England is between 1.1 and 1.3 and there was mention in yesterday’s Downing Street press briefing that the new variant could add 0.4 to this.
Many people I know were saying “thank goodness” yesterday when Boris Johnson ditched his populist gesture to allow social mixing of up to three households or bubbles for five days. It was a scary idea. Party at Christmas and die in February. And it was particularly scary because Christmas is a time when we get together with elderly relatives, some of whom we haven’t seen for months, if at all this year. Although hugging is not allowed, that can’t always be explained to older folk whose short term memory is beginning to fade. And rarely to kids who might be unwitting asymptomatic carriers of Covid-19.
Boris Johnson’s promise of a sociable Christmas was going against medical and scientific opinion. The British Medical Journal and the Health Service Journal published a rare joint letter. Its conclusion was blunt:
“We believe the government is about to blunder into another major error that will cost many lives. If our political leaders fail to take swift and decisive action, they can no longer claim to be protecting the NHS.”
Do you remember? Boris Johnson standing up at the daily press conference earlier in the year claiming that “we follow the science”. He should have known that he was following advice given by scientists, not a rulebook like the Latin Grammar he crammed from at Eton. The evidence from SAGE minutes and scientists is that his actions have always lagged the science. This despite the threat from the two main vectors that promote the spread of Covid-19. Delay. People mixing.
The lack of scientific training in Whitehall and Parliament has long been a problem. Throughout the year, we have seen scientific knowledge presented as fact not as the best available understanding – though the messaging has improved in recent weeks. Science works through collaboration and challenge. Uncertainty is normal and it is the job of scientists to reduce that uncertainty. That has been what they have been doing with Covid-19 but too often politicians have tried to find ways of softening the scientific message. That has led to them doing too little too late.
The virus is now deadlier than ever. Not because it will increase the death rate among those it infects, but because it will infect more people. The new variant has been known from 20 September but it’s ability to spread so rapidly has only recently been understood. I am puzzled how Boris Johnson could brush off concerns at PMQs last Wednesday and declare a socially mixed five day Christmas only to announce a clampdown three days later. I am not suggesting that people aren’t talking across government but it is clear that the political leadership is sometimes not listening.
The new restrictions are essential. They will mean that more people will live physically healthier lives and fewer people will die. But there are significant consequences for mental health. For wellbeing. For increased loneliness.
Throughout this year, Ludlow has shown its strength as a community. Helping with everything from delivering food to giving those who are alone or struggling a comforting phone call. This Christmas and New Year, it more important than ever to phone a friend, talk to a neighbour and give a little bit of help.
Christmas bubbles may be up to three households in Tiers 1 to 3, not Tier 4, and must only meet on Christmas Day. Guidance. Those that must work a long shift in hopsitals and energency services on that day will be barred from catching up with family on Boxing Day or another day.