The government announced on Friday another 53,285 coronavirus cases and 613 deaths—including an eight year old child. This means a 63 percent rise in infections in a week, and four days in a row with more than 50,000 positive tests.
Because of how they are recorded, official death records were lower than usual over the long Christmas weekend, dropping to 230 deaths on Boxing Day. They were then higher than expected mid-week, rising to 981 on 30 December. The average for the week was 554 deaths per day.
There needs to be a flood of vaccinations, but there is only a trickle. Only 250,000 people a week are being vaccinated at the moment. The target is two million a week.
Now the government is taking potentially hazardous measures to cover up its failings.
On Wednesday it announced that second doses of the Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccine and the Pfizer/BioNTech jab would now be given up to 12 weeks after the first dose.
Those who have the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine had previously been told there would be a three-week gap between doses, with many already booked in for their second jab.
The move to 12 weeks is designed to give a first dose to more people rather than two doses to fewer. But it is not based on tested results. Even Pfizer criticised the decision.
The Big Pharma giant said, “Our study was designed to evaluate the vaccine’s safety and efficacy following a two-dose schedule, separated by 21 days.
“There are no data to demonstrate that protection after the first dose is sustained after 21 days.”
The hundreds of thousands of people who have received one dose include vulnerable older people and health and care workers. They may now be left wholly unprotected again if they do not have a second dose as previously scheduled.
The government has also drawn up plans that would allow patients to be given different coronavirus vaccines for the first and second doses under certain circumstances. But Mary Ramsay, head of immunisations at Public Health England, said mixing Covid-19 vaccines was not recommended. “If your first dose is the Pfizer vaccine you should not be given the AstraZeneca vaccine for your second dose and vice versa," she said.
The US Centers for Disease Control, one of the most prominent public health authorities globally, says coronavirus vaccines are not interchangeable. The BioNTech and Oxford vaccines use different technologies. The approach also appears to be discouraged in Europe.
The British Medical Association (BMA) said it was unreasonable and unfair to expect GPs’ practices to cancel and rebook appointments for second doses not administered on schedule.
Dr Helen Salisbury is a GP and medical adviser to the health experience research group at the University of Oxford. She tweeted that health secretary Matt Hancock should help to phone her elderly patients and explain why their second jab had been delayed.
She said her primary care network needed to cancel and rebook 1,160 appointments.
“At five mins per phone call, that’s 193 hours’ work. Not to mention the grief and anger,” she tweeted.
The change in the times between vaccines is the result of the government’s wider failures. There are not enough workers to deliver the vaccines across Britain seven days a week.
There are also wholly inexcusable shortages of “fill and finish” capacity. This is the process of putting a vaccine into vials and packaging it for distribution.
Such necessities could have been foreseen and planned for months ago. But as with the shortages of personal protective equipment, and the deadly farce of test and trace, the Tories have failed.
And there are doubts about the logistics of distributing the vaccines.
Tory ministers originally claimed Britain might have 30 million doses of the Oxford/AstraZeneca jab ready to go by September 2020.
That pledge was later downgraded to 4 million doses by the end of 2020. In reality, just 530,000 doses were “available to the UK” as of 30 December.
A vaccine is only one tool in what should be a strategic response to the virus based on people’s needs, not maintaining profit-making.
But the government has always done too little, too late. And it has always put business interests first.
In the latest U-turn, education secretary Gavin Williamson was forced to announce on New Year’s Day that all London primary schools would remain closed next week. This came only days after he ordered schools in ten of the capital’s 32 boroughs to remain open.
Mary Bousted, the joint general secretary of the NEU union, said ministers must now “do their duty” by closing all primary and secondary schools to contain the virus.
That demand needs to be turned into reality. Education unions must call on their members not to return to work until it is safe.
People are dying in terrible numbers because of government policy. It is time for all the unions, in whatever sector, to call action urgently. That means breaking from the regime of ballots, lengthy timetables and endless delay under the anti-union laws.