The most interesting anniversaries are often those which governments fail to publicise and people are unaware of or would like to forget. This is certainly true of 8 December, when it will be one year since the “Kent variant” of coronavirus (aka Alpha and B.1.1.7), was first identified. By then this new, more infectious virus was ravaging the north Kent coast and was to lead to tens of thousands of deaths in Britain between October 2020 and 31 March 2021.
I still think of it as the Kent variant because the Covid-19 Genomics UK Consortium said that the key sample came from “near Canterbury”, where I live. A local medical source, who wanted to remain anonymous, gave me more precise information, saying that the first patient suffered from a weak immune system and lived in Margate on the Isle of Thanet, which is 15 miles from Canterbury.
As Britain faces the onset of the potentially more infectious and vaccine-resistant Omicron variant, it is worth comparing this current wave of the pandemic with the one that started in Kent a year ago. Much has changed since then because of mass vaccination, but many medical, social and political factors, both negative and positive, remain the same.
There is a reason why the Kent variant emerged where it did, in the impoverished coastal towns on the south side of the Thames Estuary. The worst affected districts were Thanet, which contains Margate, Ramsgate and Broadstairs; and Swale, where the main population centres are Sittingbourne, Faversham and the Isle of Sheppey. These two districts alone include 13 of the 15 most deprived districts in Kent.
Social inequality was always extreme here: a woman living in the poorest ward in Thanet lives on average 22 years less than a woman in the richest one. Healthcare provision for the 300,000 people living in the two districts is poor: as of 2019 there were fewer GPs per head of population in Swale than anywhere else in the country.
The high level of deprivation, exacerbated by 10 years of austerity, provided an ideal breeding ground for a new variant of the virus. Lockdowns and lesser social restrictions are intended to be a means of limiting transmission of the virus from person to person, but self-isolation is only feasible for those who can afford it. “Poverty is a mechanism for increasing social contact,” Jackie Cassell, a public health specialist at the Brighton and Sussex Medical School, told me earlier this year. She had found in a study that people who have to go out to work, use public transport and work in a construction site or warehouse cannot avoid multiple social contacts.
On average somebody who goes out to work has 12 periods of close or prolonged contact with people and 17 brief or distant contacts per working day. Contrast this with people who have jobs that enable them to work from home, who have only two close or prolonged contacts and two brief or distant ones.
She stresses now that in its present phase, Covid-19 infection is hitting areas least affected last time round, but her study, drawing its information from a Public Health England report, does explain why lockdowns are the bluntest and least effectual of instruments. The great failure of the Government during the first year of the pandemic was that it never understood that a large part of the population was not getting tested – or was failing to self-isolate if they tested positive – because they could not afford not to work. By not providing adequate sick pay for those with Covid-19, the Government largely sabotaged its own efforts to stem the spread of the virus.
This should have been obvious when take-up of a mass testing pilot was twice as high in the richest parts of Liverpool as in the poorest. A separate study by King’s College London showed that, while 70 per cent of people said they would be willing to self-isolate if they tested positive, only 18 per cent actually did so. In other words, those most likely to catch Covid-19 because of the nature of their jobs, were least likely to isolate themselves.
The lesson to be drawn from this is that if Omicron, or a subsequent variant, does evade the vaccines and new lockdowns are imposed, then these will only succeed if people living in deprived areas receive adequate support. Indeed, the failure to provide sufficient sick pay had a more devastating consequence than the more notorious scandals over dodgy PPE procurement contracts or a vastly expensive but dysfunctional Test and Trace system.
Of course, the Government would like everybody to forget its past serial blunders – convincingly attested by Dominic Cummings as Boris Johnson’s former chief adviser – and dismiss them as ancient history, no longer relevant because of the successful roll-out of the vaccinations for which it gives itself full credit.
This claim has never been very convincing, given the persistent poor judgement of the Government in 2020/21 and its miserable record in putting into operation measures to combat the pandemic. Yet it has hitherto been impossible to refute Johnson’s assertion that it was he and his ministers who were the driving force behind the success of mass vaccination and show that they are simply piggy-backing on the achievements of scientists, pharmaceutical companies and the NHS.
But a revelation last week gives a hint of who was doing what in the crucial month of December 2020, when the Kent variant was becoming rampant. Johnson has not denied that there was a festive party with drinks and games at 10 Downing Street on 18 December (though No 10 has said, without elaborating further, that no rules were broken). More damning than any questions over lockdown rules, however, is the fact that this was the day when the Government’s New and Emerging Respiratory Virus Threats Advisory Group (NERVTAG) held its vitally important meeting confirming that the variant had started in Kent, probably from one person, and was 50-70 per cent more infectious than the original strain.
And how did senior Tories respond to this grim discovery that was to mean death for tens of thousands of people in the following months? It turns out that they went to a party, genuinely fiddling while Britain burned. Their excuse might be that they did not understand the significance of what they were being told, but this would rather spoil their boast to have been in the driving seat in the battle against the virus.
Some find it remarkable that Johnson has suffered so little political damage from his blunders during the pandemic. They attribute this to some special political magic on his part, but it is scarcely surprising. Nicola Sturgeon in Scotland and Mark Drakeford in Wales have similarly benefited from standing at the podium day after day as the national leader at a time of crisis. This is a natural human emotion summed up in the old nursery rhyme:
Daddy’s on the engine, don’t be afraid,
Daddy knows what he’s doing”, said the little maid.
Daddy’s on the engine, there’s no need for fear,
My daddy’s on the engine, and my daddy’s an engineer.