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Ministers Are Holding Their Nerve That Their Summer Covid Gamble Will Defeat The Third Wave

6 min read

MPs have set off for summer not knowing what they will return to in September, the government having taken a foot off the brakes by removing all Covid legal restrictions this week as infections continue to rise. 

Ministers in England put all their faith in modelling that shows this new wave will peak in August, and begin to come back down as more and more people become double jabbed, and crucially before Covid hospitalisations overwhelm the NHS.

They are looking to Scotland, which caught the third wave ahead of the rest of the United Kingdom, and hoping the same dramatic fall in cases it is experiencing now following a sharp increase at the start of the month is mimicked south of the border.

One senior Tory explained it to PoliticsHome thus: hold your nerve, and trust that if you keep vaccinating and isolating people you can ride the third wave down the other side without causing a ‘summer crisis’ for the NHS.

The hope is that by the time MPs return from summer recess in September, and more importantly so do schools and universities, the country will be so well immunised that even if some level of Covid remains, the link between infections, deaths and overwhelming hospitalisations will finally have been completely broken, not just weakened.

Key to the success of this plan will be the impact of step four of Boris Johnson's roadmap, with large events back on and masks no longer needed. Latest ONS data shows that in the week before step four went ahead, more than 700,000 people in England tested positive for Covid

The government freely admits it knew cases would rise once it took this step, and is planning a review of the lockdown easing by 23 September, but by then things could already have got much worse, with questions being asked if there is a plan if the numbers get too high and don’t level off, causing hospitalisations to reach a tipping point.

There is a sense that those inside it are bored with the pandemic, and are desperate to move on – something Downing Street strongly denies.

But scientists advising government, including chief medical officer Chris Whitty, appear nervous about the government’s great Covid gamble over the summer. Earlier this week he told an audience at the Science Museum he believed the number of people in hospital with Covid could reach “quite scary numbers” soon.

“I don’t think we should underestimate the fact that we could get into trouble again surprisingly fast,” he added.

Whitty’s warning was echoed by the government’s Sage advisory committee on coronavirus, who told the i newspaper England may have just three weeks to avoid some restrictions being reimposed to prevent a late summer crisis in the NHS.  

One Sage advisor told PoliticsHome there was “an emerging divergence of opinion” between them and ministers. 

The latter appear to favour “the cumulative impact of continuing the vaccination campaign plus the wave of natural infection” to build a so-called “hybrid immunity”, and get cases down and the economy moving sooner than continued restrictions might. 

“I think it is a gamble,” the Sage advisor said. “It's a calculated one and it might or might not come off.”

They said this current wave of infections is largely among young people, seen as generally low risk individuals, who if admitted to hospital are not “presenting huge demands on medical and nursing staff”, at a time when bed occupation on respiratory wards are at their quietest point of the year. 

Little about long covid among those groups has been mentioned by government. 

“I think that that's the sort of balancing act that the health department is encouraging the 'quad' in at the moment,” the Sage advisor continued, referring to Boris Johnson, Sajid Javid, Rishi Sunak and Michael Gove – the four most senior ministers who make the key decisions on Covid. 

"I think it's one which [health secretary] Javid is probably more sympathetic to than Matt Hancock.”

Downing Street dismissed claims they were pursuing “hybrid immunity”, and said it is not a concept used in meetings on Covid strategy.

They are confident in the vaccination programme, and will have been encouraged by current figures showing that despite Covid hospital admissions going up by more than 30% week on week, the seven day average is still at below 750, far below the peak of more than 4,000 back in January.

Similarly the total number of Covid patients in hospital is currently just over a tenth of the January peak, despite cases being at more than three-quarters the level of the second wave peak.

This week also saw daily case rates dipping compared with the same day the previous week for the first time in two months, but the government’s strategy is certainly not without risk. 

MPs will be nervously looking over at the Netherlands, where leaders were forced to hastily backtrack on the decision to re-open nightclubs earlier this month, with their Prime Minister Mark Rutte publicly apologising for "an error of judgement”. 

One Tory predicted, after seeing pictures of packed dancefloors in London as revellers celebrated the lifting of restrictions at midnight on Monday morning, that Johnson would be speaking “double Dutch” in a few weeks.

Ironically widespread covid infection alongside higher vaccination rates increase the chance of a dangerous new variant emerging because it “creates the conditions in which an immune escape variant is most likely to emerge”.

“The likelihood of this happening is unknown,” an official Sage document said. “But such a variant would present a significant risk both in the UK and internationally.”

The government’s last line of defence is the NHS Covid-19 app, but with more than 600,000 people “pinged” last week and encouraged to self-isolate, chaos was unleashed.

Staff shortages in food supply chains led to empty supermarket shelves, and a list of essential worker exemptions to curb the issue was only released late on Thursday.

Former health secretary Jeremy Hunt said the government “risks losing social consent” for the NHS app if it does not move to allow fully vaccinated people to avoid isolation now, rather than wait until 16 August, amidst widespread reports of people deleting the app or turning off the crucial contact tracing functionality. 

But Number 10 are sticking to their guns, arguing the app is working the way that it should be, and as the effect on cases of Monday’s unlocking is yet to be felt, they do not want to weaken the system yet.

The mood of Conservatives was not helped by Johnson and Sunak’s about turn on Sunday over self-isolating when they themselves were pinged following contact with an infected Javid, but initially tried to swerve isolation. 

One MP said they found it “totally inexplicable”, and it has left them uneasy about leaving No.10 to its own devices for six weeks.

“I have every sympathy with that,” the Sage advisor told PoliticsHome, calling the exclusion of Parliament to scrutinise the government's actions “increasingly problematic".

They added: “I've talked to a few MPs and there's a real concern about a lack of effective scrutiny, rule by decree for six weeks. 

“This has been troubling people across a wide spectrum of Parliament, beyond the usual suspects, and I think there will be a political price to be paid for it at some point.”

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