ANALYSIS - UK Gov't Balancing Health, Economic Concerns Amid Calls To Ease COVID Lockdown

ANALYSIS - UK Gov't Balancing Health, Economic Concerns Amid Calls to Ease COVID Lockdown

Boris Johnson is poised to set out his plans for exiting England's COVID-19 lockdown this coming Monday, and experts told Sputnik that the UK prime minister faces a delicate balancing act as economic pressures come up against public health concerns

MOSCOW (UrduPoint News / Sputnik - 20th February, 2021) Boris Johnson is poised to set out his plans for exiting England's COVID-19 lockdown this coming Monday, and experts told Sputnik that the UK prime minister faces a delicate balancing act as economic pressures come up against public health concerns.

England has been under a nationwide lockdown, which allows individuals to leave their homes only for essential purposes or exercise, since January 6, as the government seeks to contain the spread of a new highly infectious COVID-19 variant first identified in southeast England.

The country set its single-day record for new positive tests on January 8, when more than 68,000 new cases were reported. However, the number of new cases reported daily has steadily declined since the reintroduction of lockdown measures, and the Department of Health and Social Care confirmed 12,027 new positive tests on Friday.

The UK's mass immunization initiative has also gathered pace, and more than 16.8 million people in the country have received their first vaccine dose as of Thursday, according to government data.

Over recent days, a growing number of Conservative lawmakers have called for an end to the lockdown measures. One week ago, Tory member of parliament Steve Baker published a letter on Twitter, which he said was signed by 63 lawmakers, calling for an end to social distancing restrictions by May, once all the nine priority groups named by the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation have received at least one dose.

Johnson on Monday said that he would announce a "cautious and prudent" way out of the lockdown measures on February 22, and he has been pushed to commit to bringing children back to schools for in-person teaching from March 8.

The UK is also facing mounting economic pressure, one week after Chancellor Rishi Sunak announced that the country's GDP fell by 9.9 percent in 2020, the worst single-year fall since modern-day records began.

ECONOMIC, POLITICAL CONSIDERATIONS SHAPING HEALTH POLICY

Throughout the pandemic to date, Johnson has pledged to "build back better," and the government on January 18 announced the launch of a new business council that will work with ministers to fuel the UK's economic recovery.

Despite the government's desire to open up the country for business, Claire Hastie, a lecturer in public health at the University of Glasgow, told Sputnik that easing the lockdown measures prematurely could in fact do greater economic harm.

"The economic concerns are understandable, but in the long term, the overall economic cost will be less if governments work towards an elimination strategy ... The danger is that, as COVID deaths decrease, there will be huge pressure to lift stay-at-home orders prematurely," Hastie said.

This opinion was shared by David Hughes, an emeritus professor of public health at Swansea University, who told Sputnik that the economic recovery will have to wait until the pandemic is fully under control.

"Nevertheless, it is a mistake to argue that there is a direct trade-off between public health measures (NPIs - nonpharmaceutical interventions) and damage to the economy. Rather I'd say we can only get the economy moving once we have controlled the pandemic," Hughes stated.

The Swansea University academic also said that the UK's economic recovery rests on the ability of other countries to gain control over the spread of the virus, adding that another resurgence in cases would have a devastating impact on consumer confidence.

"The impact on public morale and consumer confidence if case numbers rose even faster than we have seen would be highly negative. Moreover, given that no single country can influence the policies decided in other countries, the negative impacts of the pandemic on international trade and travel would remain," he said.

According to Dr. Sreedhar Krishna, a National Health Service (NHS) consultant and the co-founder of Skindoc, political and economic considerations have and always will shape public health policy.

"Whether we like it or not, health policy is driven by factors outwith of the domain of health. While this may not sit well with some, this is driven by the state of the national coffers ... Thus, political and economic perspectives are so intertwined into the fabric of health policy that it is impossible to truly separate the threads," Krishna told Sputnik.

Hussain Abdeh, the superintendent pharmacist at UK online pharmacy and doctor service Medicine Direct, told Sputnik that the falling number of new COVID-19 cases was likely the result of the social distancing restrictions that are currently in force, meaning that any easing may lead to a resurgence in the spread of the disease.

"While there is, thankfully, a decline in the number of daily infections, it is important to bear in mind that this could well be a direct result of the current social distancing rules. Therefore, relaxing the rules again may mean that this trend could be swiftly reversed. It makes no sense to lift the restrictions at the moment and may mean yet another spike in infections," Abdeh said.

The current nationwide lockdown in England is the third that has been enforced since the start of the pandemic.

Ministers brought in a tiered COVID-19 alert level system, which applied different measures in different regions, this past fall, although the scheme has been cast aside twice, first in November and then in January, due to surges in the rate of infection.

During a press briefing in late January, Johnson said that the earliest possible date that schools could reopen for all children would be March 8. At the present time, only the children of key frontline workers have attended in-person classes, with other children receiving online tuition.

Since making that announcement, the prime minister has been urged by Tory backbenchers such as Mark Harper, the chairman of the COVID Recovery Group, not to "backslide" from this date.

According to University of Glasgow lecturer Claire Hastie, announcing the planned dates for easing lockdown measures puts significant pressure on the government to lift the restrictions even if the rate of infection is not sufficiently under control.

"I don't believe these dates are entirely arbitrary, but announcing them too early does not take into account the fast-changing nature of the pandemic. And of course, once these dates are published there is pressure on the government to follow through with their plans," Hastie said.

The academic cited the confusion over the festive period, when the government first pledged to allow up to three households to form a so-called Christmas bubble, before the plans were altered on December 19 amid the rapid spread of a new highly infectious SARS-CoV-2 variant.

"We saw this with the last-minute tightening of Christmas household mixing and travel rules. The government was very reluctant to take this step after prematurely announcing unduly lax Christmas rules in the autumn," Hastie said, noting that the government has struck a far more cautious tone this time around.

NHS consultant Dr. Sreedhar Krishna shared the opinion that the government's seeming commitment to lift lockdown measures on specific dates ignores the flexibility required to contain the ongoing pandemic.

"While there is some need to signpost and roadmap the next steps, making bold declarations such as these - and rigidly sticking to a timetable - is folly. The government should make provisional statements enabling wiggle room. This means that they are able to harness the best and most up-to-date available information to make the right call. If the situation then changes, they would then have the political capital to decide on changing the timetable without losing face or diminishing public confidence," Krishna said.

Krishna and Emeritus Professor David Hughes both said that they would support the measured and cautious easing of lockdown measures that took into account the current pandemic dynamics as well as the success of the mass vaccination campaign.

Hughes in particular noted that there was still great uncertainty over the extent to which vaccines can slow the transmission of SARS-CoV-2 and how the efficacy of vaccines in clinical trials corresponds with their real-world effectiveness.

NEW VARIANTS THREATEN GOVERNMENT'S PLANS

The discovery of a range of new COVID-19 variants, some of which are believed to be up to 70 percent more transmissible, has threatened many governments' plans to begin easing the winter lockdowns.

Scientists in the UK discovered the so-called Kent variant, which was first identified in southeast England, back in September. The spread of the new strain is believed to have led to the rapid rise in new cases seen in the country in December, which then prompted many countries to impose a temporary ban on flights to and from the United Kingdom.

Since then, highly infectious variants have been identified across the globe, including in South Africa, where a strain is believed to hinder the effectiveness of already-developed vaccines produced by AstraZeneca and Pfizer.

Earlier this week, scientists at the University of Edinburgh announced that another new SARS-CoV-2 variant, named B1525, was responsible for at least 32 cases of COVID-19 in the UK. Researchers said that the strain had also been found in a dozen other countries.

"The virus is showing the ability to mutate and this can render our existing plans null and void," Dr. Sreedhar Krishna said.

According to the NHS consultant, the government should take into account the spread of new virus variants before deciding whether to ease social distancing restrictions.

"If a new variant which is highly transmissible should emerge, this would then need to inform the subsequent response. In essence, utilise sophisticated infection surveillance systems and respond to what is happening on the ground. If the vaccine should provide universal coverage against these variants, this will mitigate against another spike. If it does not, we will be looking at reinstatement of lockdown measures throughout 2021," Krishna said.

As of Tuesday, more than 210 confirmed or probable cases of the South African COVID-19 variant have been discovered in the UK, according to Department of Health and Social Care data.

In order to limit the spread of this, and other highly infectious variants, the government this past week launched a hotel quarantine scheme for arrivals from 33 so-called red list countries, including Brazil, South Africa, and Portugal, where new variants are believed to be spreading.

Individuals who spent time in "red list" countries within 10 days of their arrival in England are now required to pre-book a room in one of 16 quarantine hotels, at a cost of 1,750 Pounds ($2,450) per person.

During their 11-night stay, guests are tested for COVID-19 on multiple occasions, and nine out of 10 Britons have backed the hotel quarantine scheme, according to a YouGov poll published on Thursday,

The devolved government in Scotland has imposed tougher measures, requiring arrivals from all countries outside of the Common Travel Area (which includes the rest of the UK and Ireland), to go through the hotel quarantine scheme, and University of Glasgow academic Claire Hastie said that the Scottish policy should be applied throughout the rest of the UK.

"A positive step is the introduction of hotel quarantine for arrivals from some countries. However, this does not go far enough. What is required is hotel quarantine for all international arrivals (as is the case in Scotland) because it is impossible to know where the next variant will originate," Hastie said.

As the prime minister looks to balance the competing political, economic, and public health interests guiding the government's COVID-19 lockdown policy, the number of disease-related fatalities continues to rise.

On Friday, 533 people in the United Kingdom who had tested positive for COVID-19 over the preceding 28 days lost their lives, according to the Department of Health and Social Care.

The UK's total death toll now stands in excess of 119,900, the highest in Europe and the fifth-highest in the world after the United States, Brazil, Mexico, and India.