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The numbers were hellish, in every sense of the word. The 1,564 deaths from Covid reported on Wednesday were the biggest daily total since the pandemic first hit the UK last spring. And on some estimates, we have now passed the awful milestone of 100,000 deaths. That’s five times the 20,000 fatalities that chief scientific adviser Sir Patrick Vallance said last March would be “a good outcome”.
Moreover, the grim inevitability of the built-in lag between case numbers, hospitalisations and people dying means that that the death toll is going to get worse. As Vallance put it to ITV’s Peston show: “I’m afraid we’re in a period of high death numbers that’s going to carry on for some weeks.”
It’s worth pointing to the first glimmer of good news, as the government Covid “dashboard” for positive cases finally went green for the first time in weeks, with a 7% fall week-on-week. The Health Service Journal also suggested general hospital admissions for Covid in London and the south east had finally started to level off and even fall.
But those other lights on the national “dashboard” (hospitalisations, deaths) are still flashing red. In the capital, medics report intensive care units admissions, a key statistic, are still rising. Outside the capital, there are very sharp rises in hospital cases in the north and midlands.
In evidence to the liaison committee of senior MPs, Boris Johnson admitted there was a “very substantial risk” that the NHS’s intensive care unit capacity nationwide could be “overtopped”. Yes, that was the prime minister himself conceding just how much more dire the situation could get.
That note of fatalism made it sound as though Johnson had done all he could and was now just waiting for the virus pattern to play out. Yet as Keir Starmer suggested in PMQs, the PM had it in his power to get ahead of the Covid curve, rather than merely watch it rise. Starmer was at his forensic best as he laid the most sombre charge at Johnson’s feet: 17,000 people had died since their last PMQs, mainly because the PM delayed for 17 days between being alerted of the new variant and imposing a tough national lockdown.
This, as well as the claim that Johnson could have saved thousands of lives by imposing a lockdown earlier last spring, felt like a preview of the public inquiry to come. If dithering over Covid once could be classed as misfortune, and dithering twice was carelessness, the sheer size of this third wave looks like a sheer recklessness with other people’s lives.
UCL professor of medicine Hugh Montgomery suggested before Christmas that people who failed to obey Covid rules would “have blood on their hands”. But that will be the very charge laid at Johnson’s door if the next few days and weeks provides evidence that the spike in deaths was linked not just to the new variant but to his crucial refusal to “cancel Christmas” for England outside London and the south east.
Starmer didn’t quite go that far in PMQs, but he came close, saying we are now seeing “the tragic consequences” of the PM’s delay. It certainly sounded like a central plank in the case for the prosecution, and if nothing else Starmer knows how to prosecute. The Sage minutes of December 22 – when the PM was explicitly warned by scientists that a November-style lockdown simply would not be “sufficient to maintain R below one in the presence of the new variant” – are sure to be Exhibit A.
As it happens, that Sage meeting also said that assessing the impact of the Tier 4-only clampdown “will not be possible until mid-January”. Well, that deadline is any day now and a direct link between Christmas day interactions could show up even more in the statistical analysis. Ominously yet candidly, the NHS’s Stephen Powis said only this week: “We’re still to see the full impact of the Christmas loosening of restrictions.”
Patrick Vallance on Wednesday said that London and the south east were showing some “levelling off...but at very high numbers and we need to be pushing this down”. The PM himself told Starmer that there were “some signs that [the lockdown] is starting to have an effect”. The problem is that’s not a defence: falling cases in the capital, but rising cases outside it, only go to prove why he should have imposed a national lockdown nationwide before Christmas too.
The route out of this hell is of course the vaccine rollout and at least the PM was finally more open about the delays being caused by vaccine production. AstraZeneca’s boss says production will increase imminently, and that should pave the way for more pharmacy jabs and care home jabs. Care homes are showing worrying case rises so it’s a race against time.
The jump in 187,000 vaccinations done in the last 24 hours, a 33% increase day-on-day, was encouraging. We should also not forget the huge testing progress the UK has made, with 584,000 PCR tests done on Tuesday and a total capacity of 800,000 a day.
The PM’s defenders say he was right to wait until the very last minute before removing key liberties like meeting up at Christmas, or closing schools. But ultimately, given the rising death numbers, he is facing the charge that he got the biggest judgement call of his life wrong: that his chronic political habit of loving being loved cost the lives of too many loved ones.
The damning verdict of a public inquiry could be that his innate political cowardice meant he criminally misread the public mood, fearing a risk of a public “backlash” over any Christmas curbs.
I may be wrong, but I suspect many people – especially our wonderfully stoic elderly population – would have not objected to a total England-wide ban on mixing households on Christmas Day if the risks were made plain. As someone who had no Christmas at all this year thanks to Covid, I can tell you it was a small social price to pay compared to the fear of hospitalisation and death.
Johnson’s allies will argue that his “proportionate” responses to the new variant were the best any PM could do. His critics will say this virus only responds to a disproportionate use of force against it. Earlier this year, both camps may have assumed that he couldn’t politically survive a second wave of deaths, let alone a third one.
But regardless of any public inquiry and its (as yet unknown) allocation of blame, it’s worth asking whether Johnson has any remote sense of responsibility.
When those images of food parcels emerged this week, Labour’s Wes Streeting tweeted that the Tories had shown a “shameful” sense of priorities and competence in the pandemic. And Nigella Lawson, the daughter of a Tory chancellor, tweeted in reply: “It is truly shameful. But these are people who don’t feel shame.”
With coming days of yet higher death numbers, we may learn whether Boris Johnson personally feels any sense of shame, for anything at all.
This article originally appeared on HuffPost UK and has been updated.