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Watch: Boris Johnson blames record COVID deaths on new variant
“I’ve got to tell you… there will be more to come because what we’re seeing is the result of the wave of the new variant that we saw just before Christmas on 18 December, or thereabouts.”
Boris Johnson’s words were referring to the “appalling” record number of daily coronavirus deaths – 1,820 – announced on Wednesday.
The new variant of the virus, which we first heard about on 14 December, is up to 70% more transmissible. That has inevitably contributed to the record infections, hospital admissions and deaths we have seen in recent days and weeks.
However, one Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage) adviser has told Yahoo News UK it’s “untenable” for Johnson to blame these grim numbers “entirely on the new variant”.
Prof Stephen Reicher said the prime minister should instead take responsibility for imposing a lockdown on England that is weaker than the first one he enforced in March last year.
That claim is supported by Thursday’s React study from Imperial College London, which found that infections between 6 and 15 January were 50% higher than in early December.
It is increasingly being suggested that the current lockdown, which was announced on 4 January, is not strong enough to bring down infections to manageable levels.
Prof Reicher, a psychologist who is a member of the Scientific Pandemic Insights Group on Behaviours, which advises Sage, said: “While the new variant may be more transmissible, it transmits in exactly the same way, and it is human interaction and proximity that makes it possible – which makes it important to limit human interaction.
“The irony is that… although we are dealing with a more virulent version, measures we are taking are a lot softer than they were in March. There are more people out and about.
“It’s not that people are flexing the rules more, it’s that the rules are so flexible as to allow many people to go and about.”
Prof Reicher has regularly criticised the government in the past for blaming the public for breaking the rules.
While there have been flagrant and high-profile examples of this – for example, a 200-strong snowball fight in a Leeds park last week – a University College London study found the majority of people are in fact sticking to the rules.
The problem, Prof Reicher argues, is that the current lockdown has allowed or forced many more people to go to work – and expose themselves to the virus – than the first lockdown.
Since the first one ended last year, the government has been trying to strike a balance between restricting the virus and boosting the economy. Prof Reicher suggests it has gone too far in favour of the latter during the latest lockdown.
He points to the “broad” key worker list, and the fact that workmen and cleaners are allowed into houses, religious gatherings are still going ahead, and nurseries are still open.
Some people, meanwhile, are left with no choice but to work. One survey found 71% of working mothers who asked to be furloughed for childcare while schools are shut were refused.
“What we are seeing is an attempt to allocate blame,” Prof Reicher says, “rather than address the responsibility to have a coherent and sufficient set of measures to deal with the pandemic. Quite clearly we don’t.”
Johnson, responding to the React study on Thursday, said it is “absolutely crucial” to follow the lockdown rules “in what is unquestionably going to be a tough few weeks ahead”.
The PM admitted the study showed the current levels of COVID-19 are too high. However, there was no hint of the rules being tightened.
When questioned whether the lockdown may not be eased until the summer, he told reporters: “I think it’s too early to say when we’ll be able to lift some of the restrictions.
“We’ll look [on 15 February, by which time the government aims to have vaccinated 14 million of the most vulnerable people] at how we’re doing but I think what we’re seeing in the Office for National Statistics data, in the React survey, we’re seeing the contagiousness of the new variant that we saw arrive just before Christmas. There’s no doubt it does spread very fast indeed.
“It’s not more deadly but it is much more contagious and the numbers are very great.”
Watch: What you can and can't do during England's third national lockdown