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Sunak hides behind rose-tinted glasses as COVID and climate threats rise

Budget ignores need for emission cuts, while government’s consistent incompetence puts Britons at greater risk from looming variants

Paul Rogers author pic
Paul Rogers
31 October 2021, 12.00am
Rishi Sunak is looking towards the sunny, post-COVID uplands
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PA Images / Alamy Stock Photo. All rights reserved

Despite the UK hosting this year's COP26 climate change conference in Glasgow that kicks off today, the pressing topic of a green future was almost entirely absent from the government’s new Budget.

Chancellor Rishi Sunak failed to include any significant points about climate breakdown. This ambivalence is set against a backdrop of strong warnings this week from the UN’s World Meteorological Organization that the decarbonisation targets being set by many governments are far too low to keep global temperatures below a 1.5°C rise, with a catastrophic rise to 2.7°C over this century most likely. The prognosis, therefore, is for progressive climate breakdown, with rapid increases in the frequency of severe weather events.

Equally surprising was the lack of concern in the Budget about the other pressing global challenge, the pandemic. Sunak’s whole presentation was couched in terms of the UK moving towards a bright new post-COVID world. The difficult days of the pandemic are over, and we can return to our old lifestyles – indeed, for much of the UK, especially England, we already have.

In contrast to this, epidemiologists have warned that the UK is not out of the woods. In England, there are now around 200 deaths a day and daily new infections recorded are repeatedly in the 40,000-50,000 range. The government, rather than its scientific advisors, appears to be going for ‘herd immunity’ through a combination of vaccination and infection, but experience elsewhere questions the wisdom of this.

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As New Scientist reported: “Nearly everyone in Iran has been infected by the coronavirus at some point during the COVID-19 pandemic, and some have caught the virus more than once, but the country still hasn’t achieved herd immunity. Instead, Iran is seeing a punishing new wave of deaths driven by the Delta variant.”

True, Iran has had a far slower vaccination rate and its health service has many limitations but the UK’s pandemic performance is nothing to be proud about in so many respects.

‘Eye-watering’ cost of failed tracing

A joint report from the Select Committees on Health and Social Care and Science and Technology was highly critical of the government’s early response to the pandemic. In the report published this month, the cross-party group of MPs criticised the delays in instituting lockdowns, a premature abandonment of community testing and an overall failure to recognise that preparations for a coronavirus pandemic had to be different from those for influenza.

It was followed this week by another damning report, this time from the Public Accounts Committee, which was hugely critical of the test and trace system that the Johnson government belatedly brought in last year, and which was allocated a budget of £37bn over two years. The report said it failed to break the spread of infections despite costing “eye-watering” sums of money. Moreover, the committee concluded that “the continued over-reliance on consultants is likely to cost taxpayers hundreds of millions of pounds”.

Both openDemocracy’s investigations and the work of Byline Times have repeatedly revealed the connections between private companies that receive massive public funding while also contributing generously to Conservative Party funds, and occasionally this has even been picked up by the mainstream media. By and large, though, the party’s support is so strong across the media that these blatant examples of corrosive practices have had little impact on public opinion, at least so far.

The government may hope that it can get away with all of this as we enter the sunny, post-COVID uplands, but that depends hugely on avoiding new variants, especially ones as infectious as Delta but with other nasty features such as greater lethality or vaccine resistance.

We’re heading into a dangerous period, where large pools of virus will circulate among partially vaccinated populations – the perfect conditions for new variants to evolve

The threat posed by new variants means that the repeated warnings of the World Health Organization (WHO) can no longer be ignored. Last year, as the pandemic began to take off, WHO was strident in its demands for the implementation of well-organised testing systems worldwide, yet even wealthy states with highly developed health systems frequently failed to deliver – with the UK being a glaring example.

Now the WHO is calling for worldwide vaccination, accompanied by voluntary social distancing backed up with lockdowns, quarantines and other measures. This combination is considered to be enough to get on top of the pandemic but it requires radical changes in intergovernmental behaviour.

With a global population of 7.9bn, full vaccination requires almost 16 million doses, plus booster jabs. Further boosters will be required annually but the first requirement is global vaccination. At the time of writing, just under 7bn doses have been administered worldwide but there are huge differences in country-by-country rates. While 49% of the global population have had at least one dose, this falls to 3.3% in low-income countries.

With global vaccination currently running at about 700m doses a month, it will take until late 2023 before everyone is covered. This means that we’re heading into a dangerous period, where there will be large pools of virus circulating in many parts of the world combined with only partially vaccinated populations – just the right conditions for new variants to evolve and wreak havoc.

The core problem is that of vaccine nationalism, with richer states forging ahead while the rest get left behind. Talk of Boris Johnson’s new “Global Britain” providing leadership on the world stage is a far cry from reality. Like too many other countries across the Global North, there is a palpable lack of leadership in the UK coupled with what can only be described as endemic complacency. In the UK’s case, though, persistent governmental incompetence combined with the ideological requirement to always put the economy first will leave it more vulnerable than other countries when lethal new variants do arrive.

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