Even more common still is to come across people back in self-isolation. The pandemic has become a ‘pingdemic’ of people being advised by the Test & Trace app to do 10 days’ confinement after coming into Bluetooth range of one of the surging number of positive cases.
With at least 40,000 new COVID-19 infections every day, more than 600,000 people were ‘pinged’ in the week ending July 15. Another half a million were phoned up and ordered to self-isolate by contact tracers. That has caused havoc at businesses across the land as staff stay home.
It’s these staff shortages that have left supermarkets running low on some supplies, theatres closing their doors, and rubbish piling up on some streets.
Compounding this, a million pupils have been sent home from school on COVID-19 contagion concerns – no doubt stranding many parents too.
And since only 20 per cent of people are using the Test & Trace app properly, there must be at least tens of thousands more infectious people keeping the pandemic on the road.
The ‘pingdemic’ may wane from mid-August, when the rules will be relaxed so that double-jabbed people can come out of ping-induced self-isolation as soon as they get a negative PCR test. But the virus itself just keeps on keeping on.
The great British experiment is supposed to show that a highly vaccinated population is resilient to a massive surge in cases, giving us a vision of the “new normal” of “living with COVID” as a virulent but not violent virus.
Vaccination is not stopping transmission, hospitalisation or death. But it is, as the government likes to say, ‘weakening the link’ between cases and consequences.
Instead, the laboratory has descended into confusion and uncertainty. The government has lost its nerve about the virus trajectory, becoming more fearful and cautious. Yet at the same time Johnson doesn’t have the bottle to impose another lockdown on a weary populace, so is trying to do it by stealth and persuasion – neither of which is a Westminster forte. The result is a halfway house. But the question is, halfway to where?
The government hopes that self-isolation, summer, voluntary social distancing and mask-wearing – the latter of which, according to polls and judging by the London Tube, is still hovering at just under 70 per cent – will get the pandemic under control. It’s also hoping the 40 per cent of people aged 18 to 25 who haven’t yet come forward for a jab will see the error of their ways.
They might have grounds for optimism: although one in 100 Britons now have coronavirus, right now the delta wave is not getting any bigger. After reaching a one-day peak of 54,674 new infections on July 17, the following five days have been under 50,000 apiece. On July 22, the figure of 39,906 was the lowest in nine days.
There is less testing going on as high schools start heading into the summer holidays. But perhaps – just perhaps – the virus is struggling to find new people to infect.
The next question is just how many hospital beds will be filled by victims of this surge. This is the number that really matters to England’s experiment. If cases are not driving people into hospital or an early grave, they are just a number.
Since there is a gap of seven to 10 days between any rise in cases and an increase in hospitalisations, the number of new admissions should still be growing. And it is. On July 18, another 788 people were checked in – the highest since March 2, but still way below the daily 4000-plus figure of the January peak, when the health system hit its capacity limit. The total number of patients languishing in hospital with coronavirus on July 21 was 4861 – the highest since late March, but barely more than one-eighth of the January horror show.
Modelling commissioned for the government suggests that, depending on the inputs used, the number of daily hospitalisations by the end of August could be anything from 100 to 10,000. Vallance has expressed a fear that it could reach 1000 – which would stress out some hospitals in areas where the delta wave is concentrated.
Deaths, too, have been climbing, and reached 84 on July 22. The rate of increase resembles the previous waves, but the numbers are much smaller – particularly, the government has said, as a percentage of cases. Remarkably, 60 per cent of hospitalisations from COVID-19 are from the dwindling, but still significant, number of Britons who are unvaccinated. The jab does the job.
The government has given a first dose to 87.8 per cent of adults, a second dose to 69 per cent. It is not planning to vaccinate many minors, and is still trying to mop up refuseniks before making a decision on booster shots for the elderly.
Vaccination is not stopping transmission, nor is it stopping hospitalisation or death. But it is, as the government likes to say, “weakening the link” between cases and consequences. The government reckons 52,000 hospitalisations have been prevented during the delta wave.
Still, there’s an emerging worry about how long this will last. The longer the virus circulates at such high levels, the more likely that elderly double-jabbed people will end up in hospital, given their vulnerability.
And a University College London study of people in their 60s and 70s, reported on Thursday, suggested the antibodies generated by both the Pfizer/BioNTech and the Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccines start to wane as soon as six weeks after the second jab. The level of antibodies could drop by as much as half in just 10 weeks.
Antibodies are only part of the story – vaccines can imprint on the immune system and cause it to churn out new antibodies if attacked by a virus – but it’s another indication that COVID-19 can be pushed back without necessarily being defeated.
The other worry is that new, vaccine-busting strains of COVID-19 could emerge from the confusing Clayton’s cocktail of England’s policy. The government’s own scientific advisory committee said this week that high infections plus a high vaccination rate “creates the conditions in which an immune escape variant is most likely to emerge”.
This would not just worry Britain, but the world. This was only the delta wave – there are plenty of letters left in the Greek alphabet. But that, in turn, only reinforces the fact that the virus is not going away. Even if England’s experiment works, the virus is still tearing around the unvaccinated world at large. New strains will surely come – if not from Britain, then from elsewhere.
Johnson’s faltering experiment has its risks, and right now it’s messy. But if it tells us anything, it’s likely to be this: it may be patchy and painful, but the alternative pursuit of purity and perfection – seemingly the aspiration of some Australian state premiers – is a pipe dream.