Public Health

This morning’s news that the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine has been approved really is the best late Christmas present any of us could ask for. It is our best chance for the world to come out of the pandemic. It is testament to the genius and innovation that is possible when academic research works so effectively with the private sector in pursuit of a common goal. But the strong position the United Kingdom is in, getting early doses of the Pfizer vaccine and being well placed for the Oxford vaccine, and having robust contracts for all the leading vaccines under development, is due in large part to Kate Bingham and her fantastic team, as well as the effective leadership at the Department of Health and Social Care.

The vaccine provides a bright glimmer of hope after what has been the grimmest of years for families and businesses around the country. While there is light at the end of the tunnel, and very clear light, the tunnel ahead of us is still very long and the path still uncertain. Our immediate challenge is to minimise the number of tragic avoidable deaths until a vaccine can be fully rolled out and effective, but also to prevent our national health service from being overwhelmed by new waves and new variants of this debilitating virus.

Scepticism about national statistics and experts’ projections is not uncommon, particularly if one reads mainstream media or so much social media. There will never be a counterfactual that we can use as a control group and we will never know what would have happened if action had not been taken, but we can see what is happening in our local communities. When my local hospital in Dudley tells me that it risks being overwhelmed if numbers continue to rise at the rate they were last month, and when it tells me that a couple of weeks ago it had just four in-patient beds available in the whole of the hospital—and that is after relying on surge capacity—it would be the very height of irresponsibility and indeed callousness to dismiss those direct and dire warnings out of hand.

It is clear that action has been needed to tackle the virus. Looking at the rising infection rates we still see today, including in Dudley South, it is clear that further action is needed. However, we need to be clear about why the scientific and medical experts believe so firmly that the particular measures we are being asked to consider are necessary and, more to the point, why they would be effective.

In September, we were told that much of the spread was due to hospitality. As we know, most of that sector has been shut in much of the country for nearly two months, yet infection rates still rise. We have been told at other times that it is because of schools and universities, but most have been closed for two weeks, during which infection rates do not seem to have dropped off. We have been told that some of the transmission has been through retail, but in tier 4 areas, where shops have been closed for nearly a fortnight, we still see very high infection rates that are, in some areas, still rising. So we need to know where the infection is spreading, why it is spreading and why these measures will help to stop it. We know that the measures taken so far, and the new restrictions that are going to be introduced in Dudley South and throughout much of the country tomorrow under tier 4, are devastating for many families and many businesses—for economic, social and mental wellbeing. So we need to be sure that what we are doing is both proportionate and necessary for the very real and serious challenge we face. For us to be sure of that, we need to be sure that these measures have the best chance of being effective in helping to save lives and reduce the pressures on our national health services.