Throughout the pandemic, science and money have been in a tug-of-war at the heart of government strategy, a delicate calibration between the protection of health and support for the healthcare infrastructure versus the need to prevent the economy from collapsing.
It emerged on Monday night that SAGE, which advises the government on science policy, warned three weeks ago that a so-called “circuit breaker” lockdown of two to three weeks was needed to curb the latest resurgence.
SAGE had warned the government that failure to impose national measures could result in “a very large epidemic with catastrophic consequences”, the documents revealed.
The government’s decision to overrule its scientists to protect the economy shows how saving jobs and business seems to have taken precedence over public health in this recent wave of the pandemic.
Boris Johnson, flanked by the government’s Chief Medical Officer Chris Whitty and Chancellor of the Exchequer Rishi Sunak at 10 Downing Street, unveiled the latest national approach to tackling the resurgence of the virus on Monday night.
The new plan is based around a three-tier system classifying different parts of the country into different levels of risk. Liverpool and its surrounding areas are at the highest level and significant restrictions on freedom have been imposed, with bars, gyms and hospitality shutting for at least four weeks and restriction on mixing between households.
Chris Whitty, the Chief Medical Officer for England, speaking at the press briefing on Monday, warned in unusually pointed tones that the “very high” level of restrictions being imposed on Liverpool would not be sufficient without even tougher local action. He said that rates would “continue inexorably to rise” without more stringent actions.
However, employment figures for the UK from the Office of National Statistics on Tuesday, with unemployment surging to 4.5%, underscore the Chancellor’s concern to keep businesses open.
Around the world, this tension between health and economic security is playing out. The Czech government has ordered the closure of bars, restaurants and clubs from Wednesday and the shift of most education to online, in an attempt to curb a rise in cases.
France has reported a three-month high in the number of patients in intensive care units. Prime Minister Jean Castex has urged people not to gather in their homes but has admitted that it is difficult for government to limit behaviour.
The World Health Organisation has warned that the number of new Covid cases is at its highest level since the start of the pandemic. Speaking at the regular Monday press conference in Geneva, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, the organisation’s director general, also called ideas of herd immunity “scientifically and ethically problematic”.
Johnson & Johnson, the US drugs giant, late on Monday paused its late stage coronavirus vaccine trial due to an unexplained illness in a study participant. This is the latest setback in the race for a vaccine and another salutary reminder to those awaiting a breakthrough that vaccine development is difficult, slow and fraught with challenges.
Clinical trial pauses are routine but they have been generating near obsessional levels of coverage in the race to test vaccines. In September a large study of another COVID-19 vaccine, being developed by AstraZeneca and Oxford University, was put on hold due to a suspected adverse event in a patient in the United Kingdom. Studies of the vaccine resumed roughly a week after it was paused in the United Kingdom, and have since been restarted in other countries as well. It remains on hold, however, in the United States.
Asian shares were trading up on Tuesday, amid positive Chinese trading data and renewed optimism on US government stimulus.
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