Lord Bethell, former health minister in Johnson’s government has recently admitted that the pandemic was ignored by the government when it initially appeared in 2020. The same might be said of the response now when experts are predicting a major COVID wave by early October. The only exception to that has been in the field of vaccines and that has been a very limited one.
The government’s policy on vaccines after Freedom Day in July 2021 was described as “Vaccines Only” rather than the more effective “Vaccines Plus” which Independent Sage and others called for. This was a policy which would rely entirely on vaccination to ward off hospitalisation and death from COVID, while ignoring all other forms of mitigation, such as ventilation and mask wearing. It was already criticised at the time as being too dependent on the virus not mutating and also being based on the health policy around flu, a virus which was seasonal and had an annual vaccination, rather than on a clinically based assessment of a very different pathogen with a much higher impact. It is well known that vaccinations wane and studies have shown that the COVID vaccine wanes considerably within six months, leaving the person much more open to both breakthrough infections and illness. This has proved to be even more important with the studies which show that there is a 10% risk of developing Long COVID, a condition for which there is no cure, after each infection.
Last autumn the government decided to offer the autumn booster shot, a bivalent vaccine, to all those over 50, as well as those with compromised immune systems. However, unlike earlier offers there were important exceptions, such as the carers and partners of elderly or clinically extremely vulnerable people who were not offered the shot. Now the JCVI, which advises the government on vaccines, has decided to offer the booster only to those over 65, clinically extremely vulnerable, those who live them and frontline health and social care staff. The large cohort of people over 50 and those under that age, including children, will be left unprotected. For many of these younger people under 50 it will have been over a year since they were vaccinated and the vaccine will have waned. This will leave much of the population unprotected going into winter and with a new variant on the loose. Schools are super spreader factories and studies have shown that having a child in the house is a major vector of infection and especially with multigenerational households (particularly prevalent among BAME groups) yet no vaccines are offered to children and Long COVID rates defined by workplaces are highest among teachers and teaching assistants.
The UK and Sweden (which is the eugenicist poster boy of the anti vaxxer movement and the Daily Telegraph) are outliers in Europe in only offering the booster to over 65s. Ireland is offering it to all over 50s and France and the US are offering it to all citizens. The impact of only offering it to over 65s and the extremely clinically vulnerable ( and this category excludes many groups such as those with suffering from asthma) means that the vast majority of the population are facing into an autumn and winter season with continuing waves of the virus essentially unprotected as previous vaccination will have waned. This was never the deal when the policy of “living with the virus” was first announced.
Furthermore, having abolished the ONS COVID Survey, which was a world class monitoring system for the virus and also not using the relatively cheap monitoring of wastewater (only used in Scotland) we are, as many scientists have said, flying blind. This is not the time to limit vaccinations or to withdraw them altogether for some. There has been talk of selling COVID vaccines privately, but the costs of doses are high, Pfizer’s current vaccine costs 100 dollars per shot. The vaccines should not become another part of Big Pharma’s ripping off of the vulnerable when huge amounts of state funding went towards developing these vaccines. They should be available to all and if sold by pharmacies, just as the flu vaccine is, should not cost more than the flu jab.
We are entering into a new period of the virus, with the new sub variant Pirola quickly spreading. Many have not even taken the booster which has been offered and we must do all we can to encourage take up, especially among the most vulnerable. Vaccination remains an essential tool in the far from finished war against COVID.
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