Vaccinesre part of a zero-Covid strategy, not a substitute for it
There is a risk that government spin around the vaccines provides a false sense of security – and the dangers posed by a premature ending of lockdown are real, writes DIANE ABBOTT
HE pace of the roll-out of the vaccination programme in this country is impressive.
It shows how the existing NHS infrastructure is efficient and effective.
But ministers and the government-supporting media go too far when they suggest that a vaccination is all that is required. That is incorrect.
Worse, there is a real risk that this PR around the vaccines provides a false sense of security, along with the risk that all the previous errors around lockdowns will be repeated.
As Independent Sage says, “Vaccines are not a silver bullet.”
The overwhelming majority of people who have received a vaccine dose report how speedy and efficient the process was.
The obvious contrast here is with the shambolic test, trace and isolate programme.
Ministers try to insist it is “NHS test and trace” but that is simply untrue.
We know that billions of pounds have been directed away from the NHS (which had always planned for a response to a pandemic) towards private-sector firms such as Serco, Deloitte and many others.
Their shambolic operation is a disgrace, with failures at every level characterising the whole system.
It is right to celebrate the achievement of the NHS in the administering of vaccines (although even here the government cannot resist an attack on GPs for not working seven days a week, and setting themselves up for potential burnout).
At the time of writing almost 10.5 million people have received a single jab.
But only half a million people have received the authorised two doses, and it is not clear whether these have all taken place within the licensed three weeks.
This single-dose strategy is almost unique to this government. It is opposed by the manufacturers, the British Medical Association and the World Health Organisation.
It is clearly a risk. Because there is no evidence based on trials which lengthen the time between doses to 12 weeks, we cannot know if this is a reckless and counter-productive approach, or whether the outcome will be a benign one.
For example, some scientists have suggested that the delay could allow the greater mutation of the virus, including the risk of vaccine resistance.
But because this is an experiment on the population, we will only find out as the evidence of the real world accumulates.
Under these circumstances it is undeniably reckless for the government to talk of easing restrictions.
Yet it seems clear that ministers have set their sights on schools reopening on March 8.
There should never be dates set for a policy response to a pandemic, whose spread accelerates or decelerates according to changes in conditions in society and is not ruled by the calendar.
Instead, there should be precise targets about new cases, hospitalisations and deaths.
In particular, these should be related to an objective assessment of the capacity of the NHS to cope with new cases as well as resume its ordinary work, and an assessment of the test, trace and isolate system to ensure that new case numbers are at a low enough level which can be easily suppressed.
That alone would require a complete transformation of the current system, and its replacement with an integrated NHS and local authority system and the removal of the useless private-sector companies that have received so much wasted public money.
In addition, proper financial support should be provided if we are demanding that people self-isolate, with guaranteed incomes based on the living wage.
Yet if the government has its way, schools will reopen in England on March 8 as a prelude to a complete easing of restrictions.
At the current impressive rate of vaccination that could mean another 10 million people could have received their first dose, for a total of well over 20 million.
But this would still be less than one-third of the population that had received just one jab.
That cannot possibly be the basis for yet another premature reopening of schools and workplaces.
We should also be clear why there is this rush to reopen schools.
As former Tory chief whip Mark Harper makes clear, the party that trebled tuition fees, abolished the education maintenance allowance and is still fighting against free school meals is not primarily concerned with the education or wellbeing of our youth.
It is the economic consequences of keeping schools closed that exercises the Tory back-bench Covid Research Group and others.
It is also implied that vaccines will stop infection and transmission. They are not designed to do that, and the manufacturers make no such claims.
This means that those receiving vaccines can still become infected and transmit the virus, even with the recommended two doses.
There are serious consequences from allowing the virus to circulate, even if some of the most vulnerable groups are partly protected.
More mutations become a risk, as does serious infection not leading to death, including long Covid.
Earlier this week there were two disturbing reports. One showed that elderly black and Asian people are only half as likely to have received a vaccine.
Another showed around 100 children a week are being hospitalised with a post-Covid condition, most of them black and Asian youngsters.
Almost no-one is being admitted to hospital currently unless their condition is very serious.
These are just two aspects of the very real human cost of the virus, beyond the statistics of cases and deaths.
It is reckless beyond belief to plan for easing restrictions under these circumstances.
A strategy to eliminate the virus is what is required, a zero-Covid strategy, and vaccines can be a useful tool in that.
But they cannot be an alternative. Elimination has occurred in many countries, and none did so with the aid of vaccine.
A strict lockdown of all non-essential work is needed to suppress the virus to minutely low levels, and a fully functioning test, trace and supported isolation system remains vitally necessary.
The risk is that the government, believing its own PR and bowing to the mistaken lobbying for business reopening, will again prematurely remove restrictions.
If that happens, a fourth wave of the virus is a real risk. A zero-Covid approach is needed to prevent that.
Diane Abbott is MP for Hackney North and Stoke Newington.