Finally, a clear public health message as the UK braces for a hard winter
A good day, for a change, for the government’s response to the pandemic, as we look forward, if that’s the right expression, to the autumn and winter. With the notable exception of the vaccine rollout, rarely has the official response been characterised by a sober consistency of purpose and clarity in communication. Panic interspersed with senseless boosterism has been the usual approach. It has helped the UK to one of the worst death rates in the advanced world.
To give all those concerned due credit, the last 48 hours have been a lesson in public health policy and messaging. The announcement of a proportionate and voluntary vaccination schedule for 12- to 15-year-olds has been followed up with a rapid rollout of booster jabs for the over-50s.
As ever, the deputy chief medical officer for England, Jonathan Van-Tam, gave a master class in colourful analogies and effective communication. Plainly, “plan A” for the immediate future, when conditions will be much more favourable to a resurgence of Covid cases, depends on pushing vaccination rates even higher, both among the young and geographically. The shadow health secretary, Jonathan Ashworth was right to push ministers hard on the relatively low take-up of the existing jabs in Lancashire and parts of the Midlands.
Unusually, though, for this government, the health secretary, Sajid Javid, has also announced a “plan B”, a set of contingency measures in case things do not go as well as expected, and, in any case, all agree that the winter may be a tough one for the NHS as it deals with the backlog of long Covid, non-Covid cases and an expected seasonal upsurge in cases of flu and respiratory syncytial virus (RCV).
The key, as the health secretary stresses, is to keep the pressure off the NHS in what may prove to be an even more difficult winter than last year. Then, the lack of preparation and an over hasty relaxation of Covid precautions did threaten to overwhelm the health service, as well as leading to a chaotic late “cancellation” of Christmas.
When he was first appointed to succeed the commendably cautious Matt Hancock (cautious at least in his professional life), Mr Javid struck a pose as someone impatient to loosen off the controls and please Tory backbenchers with a bonfire of controls. He, and the nation, was fortunate that the vaccination programme did indeed form a defensive wall against another deadly spike in infections, but he seems to have calmed down these days and is taking a more sensible view of the immediate prospects.
After some weeks in the job he must now be listening to his experts and “following the science”, as the phrase goes. Even so, he is unwise to scrap the list of highly vulnerable patients subject to special attention (a step which is not being taken in Scotland, and, indeed, Ms Sturgeon is moving much more slowly towards liberalisation, understandably).
To some audible moans on the benches behind him, Mr Javid told parliament that face coverings may once again become mandatory (ie compulsory) in certain public settings, and warned that some people will be asked to work from home once again. An even greater disappointment for the libertarians in his party is his suggestion that so-called vaccine passports will be required for entry into crowded indoor environments, as is still the case in Scotland.
Mr Javid told the Commons that “any responsible government must prepare for all eventualities”. It seems an obvious thing to say and do; but the public must be wondering why minsters didn’t try doing that before now.
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