Dr Owain Williams By: Dr Owain Williams
Lecturer in IR and Human Security
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13 Jan 2021 : 1564 UK Deaths Today

1,564 deaths from COVID-19 were announced today in my home country the UK. My family and kids are in lockdown across the UK, my eldest son determined to return to university. I have been privileged myself to take a 2 and half week break from engaging with the virus, and over 3 weeks from the diary platform. In truth, my own period of pandemic fatigue. Returning to it all, I realise that it is impossible to even summarise even my own experience and analysis of the last 4-6 weeks. The virus itself, let alone events in US politics, are all so hugely out of control and disastrous in human terms to elide any capture. COVID-19 seems set to be far worse in its impact in 2021 than it was in its first year. Any fantasy that vaccines will have impact on spiralling numbers this year evades the reality of the deeply unequal access issues which will continue to spell asymmetric impacts of the virus, and militate against a genuinely holistic, science informed, and progressive global effort to stop the spread. Even in countries where it is being rolled out, escalating mutations will potentially threaten the efficacy of present vaccines.

In Queensland we have had our own short lockdown (3 days) as the UK variant of the virus escaped one of the quarantine hotels in Brisbane via a cleaner. Genotyping has revealed 6 cases in the same hotel are identical having all spread from the same person there. The streets of Brisbane saw huge compliance with the mask orders for essential business such as food shopping, without any exception from my observation. Again here, we appear to have dodged a bullet here through a combination of huge amounts of public trust in the public health led advice, the go early go hard approach working. I am convinced that the staggering 116 days with zero community transmission in the sate has been enough to convince people here that freedoms and securities are worth the price of lockdowns and compliance.

The contrast with the UK is immediate for me. Today on the 13th of January the country passed the threshold of 100,000 deaths with a new daily record of 1,564 deaths, having been at more than 1,000 deaths per day for all of January. Friends and family are so tired of the chaotic incompetence and grift that is supposed to be steering the country out of the catastrophe. This is not pandemic fatigue for many, but just a huge sense of time wasted and governance failure. It is the worst failure of UK public policy of the late 20th Century to date. One Professor at the University of Bristol, Scally, is quoted today in The Guardian speaking to the 100,000 deaths milestone:

‘It is an astounding number of preventable deaths from one cause in one year, an absolutely astounding number. It is a sign of a phenomenal failure in policy and practice…”

This is the single biggest number for UK mortality since the Second World War. I have to let that sink in for myself. Reading back through UK notes in the last year, especially in March, I see the odd phrase and statement that reminds again of hubris. ‘Take it on the chin’, the advice from Johnson about infection. Valance in March sating that getting away with 20,000 deaths would be a ‘good outcome’. SAGE advice from September through to Christmas for the need for circuit breaker and lockdown ignored, Henegan, Gupta and Tegnell briefing Johnson in September on herd immunity and selective shielding. The Christmas exception and the student halls being open, schools open, and so on. A litany of disasters with numbers quadrupling in Tier 4 areas (then the highest tier) by December the 30th.

The UK death rate is now the second highest in the world, the NHS is overwhelmed, 45,000 health workers are off work with sickness. With the rising numbers of infections, and the infectivity of the new variant aside, numbers of hospitalisations and deaths are now baked in from the delays and Christmas holidays. Late January and early February will see far worse outcomes than are presently being experienced, a system already stretched will not be able to cope in simple personnel terms. Even so some are still questioning the new harder line strategy of fines, lockdown and so on. Henegan places another piece of drivel in The Telegraph on January 12, which I force myself to read. It is the usual concoction of selective statistics and opinion and appeals to a common sense that has long since seen facts evaporate. Some are even pointing to declining in infections again as a sign the second wave is over.

The UK variant is now in some 50 states and territories, even with widespread travel bans and curbs on movement. There is a new Brazilian mutation, added to the UK and South African strains that have had so much publicity. Again, the unchecked spread of infection provides a base for such mutations to occur, that is what viruses do given time and a basis to mutate. It is not an intentional viral strategy, such mutations are accidental and inevitable. And new strains with greater infectivity become dominant. Should we wish to stop this process and protect vaccination gain then we narrow the basis or pool for such mutations to occur. That is why herd immunity or selective shielding is presently such a stupid idea – or at least one reason why.

In the UK, Johnson and members of the government are refusing to accept any responsibility for what has unfolded. They point to the success of the vaccine strategy and the hope for 2021. The deaths described above are politically-driven deaths, no more no less. In the US, the outgoing administration has long since stopped even mentioning COVID-19 such is abnegation of political responsibility there. Brazil much the same. Political leadership absent or destructive, a failure on an unimaginable scale just one year ago.

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