On Thursday evening, Matt Hancock posted a series of Tweets that sent the UK into disarray. He wrote that the Government had “seen an increasing rate of transmission in parts of Northern England” and would subsequently not allow people from different households to meet indoors in Greater Manchester, Blackburn with Darwen, Burnley, Hyndburn, Pendle and Rossendale, starting from midnight.
Events moved quickly the next day, in which Boris Johnson elaborated on the decision that had been made. At a 10 Downing Street press briefing, he announced that lockdown easing would be postponed in England and that the country would have to “squeeze the brake pedal”, as “the prevalence of the virus in the community, in England, is likely to be rising for the first time since May”.
Even more depressingly, Chris Whitty, England’s Chief Medical Officer, said that “we have probably reached or neared the limits of what we can do in terms of opening up society”.
Alongside the news that England has the highest excess mortality rate in Europe, the spikes being seen across Europe, and the repeated warnings of a second wave, no doubt this has been one of the most disheartening weeks in the Covid-19 crisis so far for many Brits – particularly those living in the affected areas.
Indeed, in these times, it can be hard to feel optimistic about the battle against Coronavirus. But there is a strange paradox to the detection of cases in the North – abrupt though Hancock’s announcement was – and the Government’s swift action.
Far from being a sign of decline, it emphasises the enormous improvements that have been made in the UK’s testing regime. Hence why it is now easy to spot cases.
At the beginning of the crisis, many will remember that the Government was routinely attacked for lack of tests. When the Health Secretary promised to accelerate the testing regime by tens – and then hundreds of thousands – the target seemed preposterous. But big strides were made; 11,722,733 tests have been processed so far, with 206,656 processed today, and testing capacity at 338,585.
To put this in context, by way of new tests per thousand people, the UK rate is 2.27 (as of July 30. Source: Our World in Data), Belgium is 1.30 (as of July 29), Denmark is 0.79 (July 30), France is 1.38 (July 28), New Zealand is 0.51 (July 30) and Norway is 0.89 (July 27).
Now that our testing regime is better, there’s no doubt that the UK will have more localised lockdowns. But as the testing, and data, becomes more sophisticated, so will the way that the Government is able to apply its intelligence.
Another reason to feel hopeful is the progress made in developing a Covid-19 vaccine. Last month, a team of scientists at Oxford University’s Jenner Institute and Oxford Vaccine Group trialled one that induced a strong immune response in patients. They have since worked with the UK-based global biopharmaceutical company AstraZeneca, with the help of a £84 million Government funding scheme, to accelerate its development. The organisation has reported “good data so far” in its large-scale clinical studies.
And that’s not all: the Government has signed up for 60 million doses of a potential Coronavirus vaccine, which is being developed by Sanofi and GlaxoSmithKline.
Of course, no one can argue that the Government has been perfect in this crisis – clearly the decision to discharge hospital patients into care homes was wrong, and people will be troubled by the excess mortality rate (although there is some debate as to whether this accurately gives a snapshot of countries’ performances).
But it can be easy to forget that hospital cases continue to decline (even if cases are going up, it doesn’t mean hospitalisation), as have the number of deaths involving Coronavirus across all English regions. At the same time, treatments and understanding of the virus continues to rise.
And let’s not forget the significant achievements throughout this crisis; the speedy roll out of the Nightingale Hospital; the shielding scheme to protect two million people; the Government’s ability to increase the number of mechanical ventilators in the NHS from 9,000 before the pandemic to 30,000; the emergency arts package, and of course Rish Sunak’s multiple schemes to keep the economy moving.
They were phenomenal logistical achievements that should give us faith about Britain’s ability to deal with what’s next.
The speed at which the nation has improved on testing is only going to bolster its decision-making further – and, indeed, these developments will be seen worldwide as all countries improve in this regard.
In short, it may not feel like it this week, but there are reasons to be hopeful about the future.