Covid Variant Chaos in the UK

Photograph Source: Steve Nimmons – CC BY 2.0

The UK has a “roadmap” for lifting its Covid lockdowns and restrictions.

These were eased in parts of Scotland on Saturday 5 June; in Wales on Monday 7 June; in England, the final stage in the roadmap for lifting its lockdown is due no earlier than 21 June (though the spread of the Delta/Indian variant in parts of England is causing the government to consider revising its plans); and in Northern Ireland, the next review is due on Thursday 10 June.

There has been a great deal of confusion about what exactly each phase of the lockdown involves. For instance, at present groups of up to 30 can meet outdoors in England, but members of my family in the UK say this rule has been impossible to implement on a busy evening in a pub’s beer garden—with people moving around it is impossible to say which group is which.

Just as confusing is the UK government’s “traffic light list” for travel abroad, which classifies countries as green, amber or red — with different rules for quarantine and Covid tests.

Portugal was placed on the “green list” initially, but was removed from it after 2 weeks. The relegation of Portugal from a “green”, restriction-free travel destination to an “amber” one, means the UK government now advises against visiting the country, and requires returning travellers from Portugal to self-isolate for 10 days upon return.

Understandably, Brits who made plans in advance for vacations in Portugal are furious— hardly of these vacationers had factored-in the need for a 10-day quarantine upon returning home, and many had not banked-up enough paid leave to accommodate the quarantine.

Towns in Portugal catering to British tourists are likewise angry at this travel clampdown, and the Portuguese government has demanded that the UK justify its seemingly arbitrary decision to downgrade Portugal on the travel list.

The spread of the more infectious Delta/Indian variant in the UK was due to another inconsistency on the part of the government. In early April, Bangladesh and Pakistan were added to the “red list” despite having infection rates that were far lower than in India. India was only added to the list 3 weeks later.

Boris “BoJo” Johnson is angling for a post-Brexit trade deal with India, and the delay in adding India to the travel “red list” is attributed by some to BoJo’s desire to ingratiate himself with India’s leader Narendra Modi.

The number of people carrying the Delta/Indian variant in the UK grew during those 3 weeks, and the UK now has the biggest outbreak of the Delta variant outside of India.

Other hurdles confront the lifting of the UK’s Covid restrictions.

As is the case with the US, the UK’s hospitality sector is facing severe staff shortages just as it is trying to recoup losses incurred over the past year. Customers with cash saved during lockdowns are returning, but many staff members have not.

The hospitality industry has long relied on EU migrants, and the coincidence of Covid and Brexit has contributed to critical staff shortages.

An estimated 1.3 million non-UK workers have left Britain since late 2019, many opting to ride-out the pandemic in their country of origin. With travel restrictions still in situ, and harsher post-Brexit migration policies introduced by BoJo’s xenophobic government, the prospects of EU residents coming to the UK for employment are much reduced.

At the same time, UK nationals working in bars and restaurants are not returning to work in significant enough numbers— these places have been the sites of previous Covid surges, and so while laid-off hospitality workers continue to receive furlough payments, the risks involved in going back to work in places paying low wages with stressful conditions, and faced with a history of Covid outbreaks, are likely to be outweighed by other considerations.

BoJo’s government is itching to end this furlough, but is not likely to do so while overall UK unemployment is relatively high.

Studies published by the Department for Education, show substantial regional disparities in the impact of the disruption to UK schooling resulting from the pandemic, with students in some parts of the less wealthy parts of the country losing twice as much learning over the same time-frames as those in the more affluent London.

The government’s plans for more investment in catch-up efforts intended to overcome these disparities are inadequate, and the UK’s education recovery chief, Sir Kevan Collins, resigned in disgust at the government’s £1.4bn/$1.63bn catch-up fund for children who lost learning during lockdowns.

Collins, appointed to the job just 4 months ago, said the sum “does not come close to meeting the scale of the challenge”. Collins had called for £15bn/$17.5bn of funding and 100 extra hours of teaching per student.

The government’s plans equate to about £50 per student per year, while other countries have provided more extensive and longer-term support. The total level of funding for education recovery in England (taking into account funding announced previously) amounts to about £300/$350 per student, which is underwhelming compared to the £1,600/$1,862 per student in the US and £2,500/$2,900 in the Netherlands.

The rickety criminal justice system was further undermined by the closure of courtrooms during the pandemic, and the scale of the problem is reflected in the government’s recent decision to allow the Lord Chief Justice to request unlimited funding to open-up more courtrooms in England and Wales.

The lockdowns exacerbated the growing crisis of mental health– an estimated 10 million people need mental health support as a direct consequence of the pandemic. There has been a steep rise in anxiety, depression, social isolation, loneliness, substance abuse, and trauma. Given that it takes years to train healthcare professionals, increased funding to expand their number will have little to show in coming years.

The NHS entered the pandemic already overextended by Tory austerity, resulting in the longest funding squeeze in its history, but the burden on mental health services is predicted to last for years. There have also been calls from leading medical organizations for frontline NHS staff to receive support similar to that given to war veterans.

Waiting lists for hospital treatment are now at the highest number on record–  4,950,297people in England are on the waiting-list for hospital treatment. That figure rose by over 250,000 in just one month– between February and March– as patients who were reluctant to go to NHS facilities during the pandemic, or who could not access it because of the extended suspension of standard care, took advantage of the pandemic’s lull to see their doctors and finally get referred to hospital.

Experts say the waiting list could reach 10 million by 2024. Hospital administrators say staff shortages, workers exhausted after Covid and sickness absences, some caused by pandemic-related mental health problems such as PTSD, will hamper the response to the backlog.

Pro-Tory newspapers such as the Daily Mail and Express titles have begun highlighting the long delays cancer patients face, as well as people with cardiac problems and incapacitating conditions such as arthritis, including those who need a new hip or knee.

Policy dictates that patients should be treated within 18 weeks, but NHS statistics show that the number of those forced to wait at least a year has careered from 3,097 in March 2020 to 436,127 in the same month in 2021.

Sceptics believe this underfunding of the NHS by the Tories is deliberate. That is, run-up waiting lists so that frustrated patients (who can afford it) will “go private” in order reduce their waiting times, and then stay in the private sector thereafter.

As if to confirm already warranted suspicions about Tory motives, the government announced a plan, given the Orwellian name “”, to sell everyone’s NHS health data to commercial firms like Google, who would then be able to use it without their explicit consent.

The government said the data would be anonymized, which evoked scorn from IT professionals in the media, since according to them it is really easy to deanonymize such data and for other private entities down the data-chain to acquire and sell-on the attained deanonymized data.

One expert said there are mountains of this type of data on both the deep and darknet.

Not that the Tories show any sign of giving a rat’s posterior about this eventuality.

Kenneth Surin teaches at Duke University, North Carolina.  He lives in Blacksburg, Virginia.