openDemocracyUK: Opinion

Boris Johnson is leading the UK into an even greater COVID catastrophe

Insistence on reopening despite Delta is not only ‘epidemiological stupidity’ but only one part of an abject failure to support global vaccination

Paul Rogers author pic
Paul Rogers
10 July 2021, 8.00am
Mask-wearing rules are set to be lifted in England
Stephen Chung/Alamy Stock Photo. All rights reserved

The top priority in controlling the COVID-19 pandemic is global vaccination. The second is changing the behaviour of many countries that have still not learnt to prioritise disease control over wealth creation and economic growth. In both respects, the virus is winning, even if we are being told that we are well over the worst of it.

Take the UK, for example, where the free market believers exert increased influence in the cabinet and the government is about to end the great majority of restrictions. This is just as the Delta variant is expanding rapidly across the population, the new Lambda variant has arrived, and England is experiencing thousands of repeated mini-spreader events because of the impressive performance of its football team.

Prime minister Boris Johnson is either taking a necessary risk to achieve herd immunity or playing with fire. The current global experience, where the pandemic is not remotely under control, points strongly to the latter. As Dr Jack Ryan, head of emergencies at the World Health Organization (WHO), put it, the UK’s COVID-19 policy is a matter of “moral emptiness and epidemiological stupidity”.

This virus has had quite the expansion since it originated in China in late 2019. It quickly spread around the world but initially appeared stable, with only a few worrying mutations.

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Sudden clusters

Between September and December last year this changed, with three new variants spreading – Alpha (that was first detected in Britain), Beta (first detected in South Africa) and Gamma (first detected in Brazil).

Since then, the severity of the virus has been limited in the Global North due to mass vaccination, but new variants are still spreading.

The newer Delta variant (first detected in India) is going global at an alarming pace, with a huge health impact in countries with low vaccination levels. And it is now spreading into countries that previously had COVID under control.

Australia, South Korea, Vietnam and Israel are trying to handle sudden clusters and China is building a 5,000-room quarantine centre. In Indonesia, Bangladesh, South Korea and many other countries across South and South-East Asia, the variant is estimated to be twice as transmissible as the original virus.

With Delta, there are indications that vaccinated people may have greater viral loads in their respiratory tracts and may more successfully act as viral reservoirs, even if symptomless themselves. There is also evidence from Israel that one of the key vaccines, Pfizer-BioNTech, is about 30% less effective in limiting spread.

The transnational spread of COVID-19 means there is a huge global viral pool from which new variants must be expected to emerge

Then there is the new Lambda variant (first detected in Peru) which is not yet fully understood but early indications are that it might also have more resistance to current vaccines. It is currently a “variation under investigation” (VUA) rather than the four earlier ones, which are “variants of concern” (VOC).

However, the fast rate of its travel, first throughout Peru, then across Latin America, and now to other parts of the world, is worrying. It has already spread to 27 countries, including the UK.

The fundamental global issue is that the transnational expansion of COVID-19, in any variant, means that there is a huge global viral pool from which new variants must be expected to emerge. So far, we have been fortunate in that new variants have not increased the lethality, but that is highly unlikely to last.

As outlined in my recent column, global vaccination is urgently needed by the end of this year, otherwise there is the risk of the world turning into a virus mutation factory that will churn out more variants with catastrophic results. It is in the interest of every country in the world to get this right and there is, instead, lamentably poor recognition of this at the highest levels of governments.

In an unusual step, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) has joined with WHO, the World Trade Organization and the World Bank in urging immediate action. The IMF director, Kristalina Georgieva, spoke on their behalf to urge an immediate acceleration of aid to the worst affected countries. However, her idea of immediate acceleration is still woefully short of what needs to be done – she is calling for 40% global vaccination by the end of this year and 60% by the end of next year.

Amid all this, the UK’s bizarre experiment in human health that is motivated by economic ideology rather than sound science is being watched closely across the world.

Faulty economic certitude

If the UK had had a competent government 18 months ago that was not riddled with faulty economic certitude, it would have followed its own much-lauded biosecurity strategy, got on top of the virus in the first three months and provided serious leadership for other nations from the perspective of its own sound scientific base.

The death toll could have been a fraction of where it is now, and the UK could have been at the forefront of a powerful intergovernmental coalition to ensure global vaccination.

It’s not too late for sense to prevail in the UK. The easing of lockdown should be delayed by three months, emergency funding should be provided to prepare an already overstretched NHS for what is to come, test and trace should be radically overhauled, border controls improved (with no VIP exceptions to the rules), and financial aid must be provided to those who must self-isolate.

In addition, the UK’s offer of donating 100 million vaccines to the rest of the world within the next year should be increased tenfold and an emergency G20 meeting called specifically to handle this crisis. If anyone asks how we can afford this, remember that the past year has been boom-time for the super-rich and the wealth of the richest thousand in the UK alone stands at well over £700bn. A tough wealth tax would certainly be a start.

The chance of any of that happening under a Johnson cabinet is like a snowflake in hell. However, there is at least one cause for optimism for other countries, if not for Britain. As Johnson continues his disastrous plan to reopen the UK, an unmitigated disaster will surely unfold, followed by the inevitable backtracking of a shamed government. This will not save British lives, but it may be enough to stop other countries taking the same catastrophic route.

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