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Government warning: "Squashing the sombrero" will damage your health

These were the words of our Prime Minister to explain the government’s strategy in dealing with the pandemic. It hides a high-risk strategy that will see a very large proportion of the population get ill to further the aim of building up ‘herd immunity’. The consequence will be numerous deaths. Behind the scenes, there will be families and children struggling to make ends meet in order to survive. The government must release emergency benefits to those most in need. Even more isolated will be the students with little family support and not much funding. They will urgently require more hardship funds to be released if they are to ride out the storm when in precarious employment. Now is the time for the government to take responsibility and ‘come clean’ with its citizens. It is not a time for frivolous remarks with so many lives at stake. The resulting deaths could exceed the numbers the UK suffered in World War II.

Running with the herd.

Most citizens of the UK will be surprised to learn today that they are part of the ‘herd’ and that the scientific advice that the government is pinning its hopes on relies on enough of us getting the COVID-19 disease (caused through infection by the novel Severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2, SARS-CoV-2) to build up ‘herd immunity’. The news broke across various media outlets (firstly, Sky News today ‘Coronavirus: Millions of Britons will need to contract COVID-19 for 'herd immunity') with the Chief Scientific Advisor, Patrick Valance quoted as saying "About 60% is the sort of figure you need to get herd immunity." This is a scientific technical term and not a reference to cattle. However, he might have been better to use alternative terms such as ‘community immunity’ or ‘population immunity’ since most people will think of a field of cattle and how ‘foot and mouth’ was dealt with in the shut down of 2001. Patrick Valance is a highly respected medical scientist with sound experience of the drug industry, but it would be interesting to hear what the Chief Medical Officer, Chris Whitty has to say. He is, after all, an expert epidemiologist.

But it is more important for the Prime Minister and his government to ‘come clean’ and be open and honest. It is their responsibility and their decision. Being frivolous with so many lives at stake is not appropriate. The buck stops with them and we expect more integrity.

Squashing the sombrero.

It seems that the government strategy has finally slipped out. They are aiming to allow most people to become infected at a rate that is manageable. What Boris Johnson ineptly calls “squashing the sombrero (The Telegraph pulled the headline as more news broke but see here instead). The idea is gaining favour simply because there is no chance of a vaccine going into production before this time next year. To keep people working, and the economy running in the longer term, we may have to ‘grin and bear it’. To achieve ‘herd immunity’, we will need around 60% of the population to get the disease. That means deliberately setting this target to lower the chances of spread of infection to the rest. Then, everyone not already immune through infection can be vaccinated later at a lower cost. The hit to the economy will be lessened by spreading out ("squashing the sombrero") the rise in numbers of people off sick. However, some will not recover, and this target means that around 390,000 people will die. It is this grim fact that was hitherto hidden. But it will emerge from the government tactics that have been obscured from the people to date. We will all ask, is this an acceptable casualty rate? I suspect most people will say no. Even in the deadliest conflict in world history, World War II, the UK didn’t suffer such high attrition with 383,700 military personnel killed alongside 67,200 civilians. A sobering thought that might have Churchill spinning in his grave.

Consequences for working people and their children.

The consequence for most working people is that they will have to take time off to recover. Many more will be laid off or see their employer go out of business. Large numbers will self-isolate to try to protect older relatives and friends. But many are also economically precarious and starting to panic. The loss of earnings will plunge a lot of families into poverty very fast. 

It is beginning to look like schools and universities will not shut down quite yet as they wait to coincide with the Easter break. That might lessen the impact to some degree. But sending children home has serious consequences. Parents will have to leave work to look after them and many will not be able to feed them when they do. There are around 15.4% of school-age pupils claiming free school meals. Despite changes in the eligibility rules, that had seen numbers declining since 2014, this number has risen sharply since 2018 and must be a major concern. This means that around 1.3 million children will be affected. However, the situation is probably worse than that. The TUC concluded in November of last year that ‘Child poverty in working households up by 800,000 since 2010’. This was based upon National Statistics data ‘Households below average income: 1994/95 to 2017/18’. Indeed, a UK parliament Research Briefing from last September, Poverty in the UK: statistics concluded that in 2017/8 “3.0 million children were in relative low-income BHC (before housing costs) (22% of children), up 400,000 from the year before”. The consequences are clear.

Food banks are not the answer with the likelihood of so many children sent home with no school meal. The government must take more responsibility and set up emergency benefits that work quickly for the families of these children. The impact on their learning will be catastrophic without this help. Also, we must add the stress of being away from school and the resources for learning. Many will not have good internet access at home or easy access to a computer or even a desk to work at. Becoming detached from teachers and their advice, that will stream out on-line, is a real concern not obviously considered. The disadvantage gap will widen very fast if this not addressed by a responsible government. This is not 'levelling up'.

Consequences for university students.

TEFS has been all about ‘levelling the playing surface’ at universities for all students. But just as disadvantaged school children will be affected by ready access to the internet to study at home, many university students will find similar problems emerging. If libraries close, those with few of their own resources may lose access to the internet for long periods. For example, along with some other universities, Durham University is delivering all lectures online from Monday. However, they have spotted the clear problem and they are keeping open the library and other facilities to access the internet. Those with family support will go home and study more safely where they are isolated from the virus. Those with fewer resources will stay and access the library on shared computers. It may be their only option to complete critical assignments or view lectures. It is vital that the universities record the lectures so that they can be accessed later. The students doing this will, however, be very vulnerable to getting COVID-19. Such students will also be affected by having to stay near the university to continue with their part-time jobs.

Illness or loss of the job will be a disaster and they will need advice and help fast. Importantly, universities should review their policies on the deployment of hardship funds. This will be an urgent requirement to mitigate the effects on many students. A review of several leading university www sites earlier today did not reveal any evidence of this being actively considered as advice.

Earlier this week, TEFS looked at the impact of budget plans on universities and students (See TEFS 11th March 2020 ‘The budget first-aid box and a research feeding frenzy’). While there were some things that may help those working part-time, there are other problems that seem to have gone unnoticed. Those working less than about 13 hours per week will not be eligible for Statutory Sick Pay. This will seriously impact many students as the earnings may represent the ‘straw that breaks the camel’s back’.

Plans to tighten up the tax rules from April may also affect many part-time employed students who work independently or for an agency. Well hidden in the budget is the further rolling out of rule IR35. This is calculated to raise a further £1.3bn a year by 2023-24. It follows a review of changes to the off-payroll working rules (commonly known as IR35) and the taxation rollout will move from the public sector to apply in the private and third sectors from this April. Students working in this way for themselves or for agencies could see their pay decline at the worst time possible. This should have been delayed rather than add to the chaos.

The conclusion is that the government’s tactics have not been made clear as they play down the full consequences. The people are slowly coming to terms with what will happen. But they are also losing confidence in the leadership as other advanced countries take greater action. After enduring nearly ten years of ‘austerity’ it seems that many citizens are very vulnerable. The government must step up to levelling the opportunities for individuals in the most need.

Mike Larkin, retired from Queen's University Belfast after 37 years teaching Microbiology, Biochemistry and Genetics.


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