Politics

What extent of Covid deaths will the general public be prepared for this summer season?

Jeff J. Mitchell PAPrime Minister Boris Johnson visiting the Nissan Sunderland plant

Bracket, bracket, bracket. That is the mood among Labor MPs who face another election defeat, this time in Batley. But it’s also the mood among some Tory MPs as they prepare for the much more important prospect of a third (or fourth?) Wave of Covid.

You always know that something is wrong when our Prime Minister takes a cautious tone, and today he carefully planted the seeds of the idea that “Freedom Day” may not mean the total freedom that many had hoped for.

In one of those non-honest pool TV clips he does to avoid press conferences, the prime minister said there may be “extra precautions” that we need to take after July 19. New Health Minister Sajid Javid refused this week to say that he would lift all restrictions and here was the obvious confirmation.

What these extra precautions will look like is still unclear, although it sounds like the rules on wearing masks and social distancing are being relaxed. However, the extension of the edict “Work from home if you can” is a prime candidate for continuation. As the virus’s R, or reproductive number, increases, # 10 has long known that working from home helps take some of that R-value out of the game.

The other clue the Prime Minister made about his current state of mind came as he gently dismissed hopes of urgent action to prevent schools from sending children home in nationwide year group “bubbles”. Instead, one has to be “careful” before the “natural fire break during the summer holidays, when the risk in schools greatly decreases” and just ask people for a little patience.

Rob Halfon, Chair of the Commons Education Committee, told our CommonsPeople podcast this week that he would like the East Asian “micro-targeting” of Covid cases and their contacts to be more widespread in the classroom. The schools that have such a policy certainly seem to be making it effective.

The Prime Minister may be trying to sound cautious in easing some restrictions right now, knowing that the frightening spike in the numbers will be a presentation issue that will make any unblocking seem counter-intuitive. We all know by now that we need to focus on hospital admissions rather than case numbers, but the worrying thing today is that hospital admissions are up 56% from last week.

No. 10 stressed today that the number of cases “does not lead to a large increase in hospital admissions and deaths”. The vaccination program has weakened the link between Covid and serious illness, but has not yet broken it. And some of the data is undeniably worrying.

Almost everyone around Johnson believes that he will celebrate “Freedom Day” on July 19th. So far, even his medical and scientific advisors seem to think this is a credible timeline. As Chris Whitty suggested a few weeks ago and No10 reminded us today, that doesn’t mean there won’t be a third wave. The test is whether this wave will have the effects some fear.

One advantage of Downing Street is the leeway that comes from its refusal to set specific benchmarks or thresholds for case numbers, hospital numbers, and most importantly, the death rate. But the prime minister’s line that his roadmap will be “irreversible” suggests that pressure will be on keeping things open.

The risk calculation is something that the PM grapples with. I asked beforehand how many deaths he is willing to tolerate in the coming months. In fact, the general public is also faced with big questions: What number of deaths and hospital stays can they tolerate? Prepare for the answer.

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