By Arab News
By Mohamed Chebaro *
Any discussion of Christmas in the UK may be premature in view of rising COVID-19 cases and the possible reintroduction of curbs on family gatherings. Preparations for the end-of-year festivities have already been hit by shortages of goods and interruptions to deliveries, but now soaring energy and fuel bills are conspiring to dampen what remains of any celebratory mood.
OK, fine, other countries might face similar challenges in a world hit by the pandemic, a changing economic outlook, rising fuel and energy prices, and disruption to supply chains — a claim the UK government would like to keep repeating. But in the UK we have the added dimension of Brexit, a term that few dare utter as a cause of some of our added misery.
Now the government of Prime Minister Boris Johnson is also refusing to acknowledge COVID-19 as a key threat to Britain’s festive season. Plan B, as it is called, could be invoked, with the return of tougher measures, if the government sees a rise in infections to the point where hospitals are under strain.
The infection rate in the UK is “astonishingly high” and “unacceptable,” according to Prof. Peter Openshaw, a member of the New and Emerging Respiratory Virus Threats Advisory Group, known as Nervtag, which advises the government’s chief medical officer.
Despite this and other warnings, the government has felt no need to renew past calls for vigilance, even after a senior scientist warned that the UK is facing a “triple whammy” of respiratory illnesses this winter. On top of COVID-19 and flu comes the respiratory syncytial virus, or RSV. According to Prof. David Matthews of Bristol University, RSV can cause mild illnesses in the very young and elderly, but more severe cases may emerge, especially since last winter’s lockdown has lowered immunity to respiratory infections.
To the virologists and scientists, one can add the voices of doctors, intensive care unit specialists, hospital managers and ambulance workers — all urging the government to take measures now before it is too late. Their calls come as an understaffed National Health Service already faces a backlog of surgery and delayed operations that could take five years to clear.
It is obvious to all these professionals that the pandemic has contributed to staffing issues, surgery delays and longer waiting times in accident and emergency departments, in addition to the difficulties caused by other infections at this time of year. Only the government seems not to notice — or chooses not to, since it has rolled out the vaccines and, hence, provided the answer to all the difficulties that the public has been facing or might face.
All this points to a quadruple whammy that could hit the UK as Christmas approaches; the result of mismanagement and a reluctance to deal with pressing issues that has characterized the current leadership.
Scientists, to the discomfort of the government, keep reminding everyone that the UK’s infection levels are much higher than those of other European countries. A figure of one in every 55 people infected might seem like a real cause for alarm, but Sajid Javid, the health secretary, refused to agree that 50,000 infections per day should be seen as a bad sign. Nor did he and his government believe that rising infections will inevitably add to hospital bed occupancy rates, or even that such numbers might trigger further mutations and the emergence of variants that could threaten the success of vaccines.
In neighboring countries, the wearing of face masks is still obligatory on public transport and in crowded venues, while vaccine passports are needed to gain entry to major events. Transmission rates in these countries are clearly manageable and their healthcare systems are under no strain.
I am not a scientist or a government official, but nevertheless it would not be scaremongering on my part to urge the government to add to its daily comments — usually full of denials, bluster and promises to throw cash at all manner of problems — some phrases such as “please, wear your mask to protect yourself and others,” “keep your distance where possible,” and “remember to wash your hands as cold and flu season is here.”
Clearly such messages would remind the public, vaccinated or not, that we are still in the middle of a health crisis, and each must play a role to shield oneself and others, if not for safety, then at least for the chance of us all enjoying Christmas.
• Mohamed Chebaro is a British-Lebanese journalist with more than 25 years’ experience covering war, terrorism, defense, current affairs and diplomacy. He is also a media consultant and trainer.