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England had a relatively better coronavirus Christmas season than Wales or Scotland.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson decided against moving from the current Plan B restrictions, in place until January 26, 2022, to Plan C, which would have resembled the approach our socialist mainland neighbours have imposed on their residents.

As such, a number of Scots visited Newcastle and Carlisle to celebrate Hogmanay, the last day of the old year: New Year’s Eve. The Scots celebrate through to January 2, an annual bank holiday there. Edinburgh has the best Hogmanay celebrations, but First Minister Nicola Sturgeon cancelled them this year.

The Welsh also journeyed across the border to England to ring in the New Year.

We were happy to have both nations share in our fun.

On January 2, The Sunday Times reported (emphases mine):

Several hours before the famous new year countdown in Times Square, New York, young Scottish revellers were counting down the seconds to midnight at bars in Times Square, Newcastle.

Party-goers fled Scotland, where nightclubs were shut and tougher socialising restrictions were in place, desperate for a big blowout. In the west of England, a similar exodus of young people from Wales boosted the numbers of clubbers in Chester, Bristol and other towns and cities across the border.

In the late afternoon on New Year’s Eve, groups of friends spilled out of Newcastle station, dragging wheelie cases behind them, girls freshly spray-tanned, hair in rollers, and boys clutching plastic bags full of cans.

One, with his arms around the shoulders of a group of friends, declared they were here for “a party”. Hailing from towns and cities across Scotland, most were in their late teens and early twenties. Many had spent successive birthdays in lockdown and were not prepared to do the same for a second New Year’s Eve.

While the UK government had allowed new year celebrations to continue, Scotland’s first minister, Nicola Sturgeon, ordered nightclubs to shut for three weeks to limit the spread of the Omicron variant, and Edinburgh’s world-famous Hogmanay celebrations were cancelled.

“It’s boring in Scotland, all the nightclubs are shut — what are we going to do in Scotland?” said Brian, 25, from Edinburgh. Lily Owen, 19, a student from Edinburgh, was visiting Newcastle for the first time with a group of friends. “There’s clubs here, it’s open, it’s a no-brainer: we’re going to go,” she said.

Aimee Stuart, 22, had also come to England with friends, “because Nicola Sturgeon has banned us from going out”. They had paid about £200 each for the trip — and they were not worried about Covid. “I’ve just had it, so it’s fine,” Stuart said. “And we’re all double-vaccinated.”

It has been interesting to note how the media narrative is beginning to change from a pro-restriction one to a more Swedish-style one.

On January 2, news emerged that epidemiologist Prof Mark Woolhouse OBE from the University of Edinburgh once again advocated a Swedish-style approach, which he had done in September 2020.

The Guardian obtained excerpts from Woolhouse’s forthcoming book, The Year the World Went Mad: A Scientific Memoir, and published them:

Rather than imposing blanket lockdowns across the nation, the government should have adopted measures designed to make contacts safe, Woolhouse maintains. “You can see from the UK data that people were reducing their contacts with each other as cases rose and before lockdown was imposed. That, coupled with Covid-safe measures, such as masks and testing, would have been sufficient to control spread.”

Largely voluntary behaviour change worked in Sweden and it should have been allowed to progress in the UK, argues Woolhouse. Instead, we plumped for an enforced national lockdown, in part because, for the first time in history, we could. Enough business is now done online to allow large parts of society to function fairly well – through video conferences and online shopping. “But it was a lazy solution to a novel coronavirus epidemic, as well as a hugely damaging one,” he adds.

However, Woolhouse is at pains to reject the ideas of those who advocated the complete opening up of society, including academics who backed the Barrington Declaration which proposed the Covid-19 virus be allowed to circulate until enough people had been infected to achieve herd immunity.

“This would have led to an epidemic far larger than the one we eventually experienced in 2020,” says Woolhouse. “It also lacked a convincing plan for adequately protecting the more vulnerable members of society, the elderly and those who are immuno-compromised.”

Instead, the country should have put far more effort into protecting the vulnerable. Well over 30,000 people died of Covid-19 in Britain’s care homes. On average, each home got an extra £250,000 from the government to protect against the virus, he calculates. “Much more should have been spent on providing protection for care homes,” says Woolhouse, who also castigates the government for offering nothing more than a letter telling those shielding elderly parents and other vulnerable individuals in their own homes to take precautions.

The nation could have spent several thousand pounds per household on provision of routine testing and in helping to implement Covid-safe measures for those shielding others and that would still have amounted to a small fraction of the £300bn we eventually spent on our pandemic response, he argues. Indeed, Woolhouse is particularly disdainful of the neglect of “shielders”, such as care home workers and informal carers. “These people stood between the vulnerable and the virus but, for most of 2020, they got minimal recognition and received no help.”

Britain spent a fortune on suppressing the virus and will still be servicing the debt incurred for generations to come, he adds. “By contrast, we spent almost nothing on protecting the vulnerable in the community. We should and could have invested in both suppression and protection. We effectively chose just one.”

And Woolhouse is emphatic that further lockdowns are not the way to deal with future waves of Covid-19. “Lockdowns aren’t a public health policy. They signify a failure of public health policy,” he states.

Instead, the country needs, very quickly, not to be surprised by new variants and not to respond each one in an ad hoc fashion. “We should agree a sliding scale of interventions and trigger points for implementing them. With omicron it all feels a bit chaotic. We need better planning and preparation for when the next variant arrives, as it surely will.”

Woolhouse is having a poke at the Conservatives there. He would be better off posting that to Nicola Sturgeon and Mark Drakeford (Wales’s First Minister). They have maintained much more stringent restrictions than England from 2020 to the present.

Another piece about adopting a Swedish-style strategy appeared in The Guardian on January 2. Larry Elliott wrote about Boris’s new change of tack in an attempt to reduce his current hero to zero reputation.

Elliott writes:

Government policy towards Covid-19 has come full circle. For now, at least, England has returned to the Swedish way of dealing with the pandemic. Tough, officially imposed lockdowns are out. Trusting the people to do the sensible thing is back in.

Whether this approach will survive the expected surge in hospitalisations from Christmas and New Year revelries remains to be seen. Boris Johnson is the master of the screeching U-turn and with the number of infections hitting new records pressure on Downing Street to act is growing. We have been here before.

Back in the early days of the pandemic the prime minister was minded to copy Sweden, a country that imposed few restrictions and decided early on that it needed to learn to live with the virus.

The prime minister’s flirtation with the “Swedish experiment” was brief, and at the end of March 2020 a draconian lockdown was imposed. Ministers knew this would have a dire impact on the economy but felt the risk of the NHS being overwhelmed left them no choice.

A paper published in the online journal Scientific Reports last year examined what would have happened had Britain followed the Swedish approach. Even assuming the public here would have been as willing to adhere to non-mandatory recommendations as the Swedes (a pretty big assumption) the UK death rate would have at least doubled.

This time, the decision is a lot less clearcut, not least because vaccines are providing protection from the virus. The news from South Africa, one of the countries where Omicron first surfaced, has also been encouraging. While more transmissible, the new variant has resulted in fewer hospitalisations and deaths. Case numbers, after rising rapidly, have started to decline.

A degree of caution is needed when comparing the two countries, because South Africa has a much younger population than Britain, and it is summer rather than the middle of winter there. Even so, it is clear the government has set a high bar for imposing further restrictions.

The prime minister’s weakened political position is one reason the government has gone Swedish. The risk of causing serious damage to the economy when it is looking particularly vulnerable is another, because this is going to be a tough year for the British public. Inflation is rising, interest rates are going up, and energy bills are expected to rocket in the spring just as Rishi Sunak’s increase in national insurance contributions comes into force.

The cumulative effect is a whopping cut to living standards. According to the Resolution Foundation thinktank the average household is going to be £1,000 a year worse off. Those on the lowest incomes will be especially hard hit by soaring gas and electricity bills.

In the circumstances, it is easy to see why the government is reluctant to add to the economic pain by imposing tougher restrictions to slow the spread of the Omicron variant. Fresh curbs mean slower growth and a hit to the public finances. They would also test the resilience of the labour market.

Good news. I, like many others of a libertarian bent, foresaw these disasters nearly two years ago in March 2020.

Let Scotland and Wales continue mired in socialist control, which is doing little to alleviate coronavirus numbers.

Meanwhile, may England lead the way out of this pandemic.

In a few months’ time, we’ll find out which approach was the correct one. I suspect England’s, provided it turns out to be a more libertarian one, will have been proven the right thing to do.

I suspect that Omicron is providential. Whilst I would not advocate throwing drinks and nibbles parties, how many people have had it and not know it?

In that respect, it could be good for building up herd immunity the old fashioned way.

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