Britain and the Indian variant: those who forget the past...

A worrying new strain of the coronavirus has emerged from the nightmarish second wave in India, which some scientists fear could spark yet another wave in Britain (where it has gained a foothold), and set back the global fight against the pandemic. This “double mutant” strain, which seems to be more transmissible than previous iterations of the virus, is spreading globally. The hapless Tory administration in Britain is making all the same blunders that provoked the catastrophic surge of infections last winter.

This not only raises the grim prospect of a new wave of infections, deaths and hospitalisations in Britain, but of British travellers spreading the new variant throughout the world, just like the Kent variant last summer, which effectively provoked the deadly second wave in Europe and caused a spike of infections in the USA.

In their reckless rush to get profits flowing again, the Tories are following the old adage that those who forget history, are doomed to repeat it.

“Wait and see”

A combination of a strict lockdown since Christmas and a rapid vaccination drive had brought down the rampant spread of the virus in Britain to manageable levels by May. The government was reporting seven COVID deaths a day on the weekend 15-16 May, compared to the 1,000 or more in the winter and spring.

With restrictions beginning to ease, the government confidently declared it was on track to continue with its “roadmap to freedom”, the latest milestone being the return of indoor mixing on Monday 17 May, with restaurants, bars and cinemas allowing customers inside their premises for the first time in months.

But then a surge of infections in Bolton and Blackburn, and surrounding areas, appeared to throw a wrench in the governments’ plans. COVID-19 cases once again started rising at an exponential rate, increasing by 75 percent between 13 and 17 May.

This was attributed to the B.1.617.2 variant, imported from India, which has contributed to a deadly surge of infections that saw a world record of 350,000 new confirmed cases in India on 17 May.

The government only placed India on its ‘red list’ of countries, to which travel is banned, on 23 April. This was weeks after a related variant to B.1.617.2 was placed under investigation on 1 April, meaning the Tories ignored the risk of an unfamiliar strain making its way to Britain.

Based on the figures from the north-west of England, scientists stated it was inevitable that the Indian variant would become dominant over the Kent strain in Britain in a matter of weeks.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson is now under pressure from multiple angles, with critics in the press, the opposition and his own party arguing that India should’ve been put on the red list sooner. Among dissenting voices was that of Johnson’s former political svengali, Dominic Cummings, who took evident delight in slamming Johnson’s “joke border policy”.

In response to the new danger, the devolved governments of Wales and Scotland took additional measures, with Welsh First Minister Mark Drakeford announcing that two-metre social distancing restrictions would remain in place, and Nicola Sturgeon in Scotland maintaining extra restrictions in Glasgow and Moray.

A section of Tory MPs (backed by the more serious and cautious wing of the bourgeoisie) are now urging a delay to the ending of restrictions in England. Others, particularly the influential, right-wing libertarian, anti-lockdown COVID Recovery Group, are demanding Johnson stay the course.

green light Image Socialist AppealThe Tory 'wait and see' attitude towards the new variant is a continuation of their long-discredited herd immunity strategy / Image: Socialist Appeal

The latter reflect the pressure of big business, which is adamant that there should be no further delay to re-opening the economy.

Johnson’s ultimate response was typically contradictory. He announced that the lifting of coronavirus lockdown restrictions across England could face “serious disruption”, and warned the public to “think twice” about utilising their new freedoms. 

However, he ultimately fell on the side of the CRG and big business, confirming in a press conference on Saturday 15 May that the scheduled relaxing of lockdown measures would go ahead on Monday as planned, despite a vague comment that the new variant “could make it more difficult” to press ahead with final total unlocking on 21 June.

Johnson pledged an acceleration of the national vaccination effort, which has now been extended to under 34s, in addition to surge inoculations and testing in the worst-affected areas.

Nadhim Zahawi, vaccines minister, said he did not expect the variant to affect the government’s unlocking roadmap, but promised to “flex” plans for the vaccination campaign, including expediting second doses for older people, jabbing younger people, and prioritising intergenerational households.

“The truth is, we cannot say for certain,” Johnson concluded on Saturday. “The situation is very different from last year, we are in the throes of an incredible vaccine rollout… We just have to wait and see… We rule nothing out.”

This phrase, “wait and see”, and blind trust in the vaccine programme alone, typifies the Tories’ entire response to this new threat. To say the least, this is a massive gamble, with thousands of lives in the balance.

Spike in cases

As of Wednesday 19 May, the number of confirmed cases of B.1.617.2 in the UK had risen to 2,967, a 28 percent increase in just two days. The real number is far higher, as there is always a delay in detecting new cases.

Paul Hunter, professor in medicine at the University of East Anglia, warned that B.1.617.2 is likely present in all regions of the UK already.

“I think the big question is how many of [the] people who are getting the Indian variant will end up requiring hospitalisation,” he told the BBC. “If the Indian variant of the epidemic continues to increase at the same rate as it has over recent weeks, we’re going to have a huge number of cases by June.”

At present, there is limited data on exactly how transmissible the Indian variant is, with current estimates ranging from 10 percent to about 50 percent more transmissible. The difference between these scenarios is not additive, however. 10 percent difference in transmissibility either way would result in huge differences in terms of hospitalisations.

The Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (SAGE) has estimated that more people could be hospitalised than in the first wave – putting the NHS at risk of being overrun – if the variant is more than 30 percent more transmissible.

Meanwhile, University of Warwick models suggest that, at 40 percent more transmissible, hospitalisations could reach 6,000 per day, well above the peak of the second wave. At 50 percent or more, Britain would face 10,000 hospitalisations per day at the peak of a new wave.

Already a chance to save thousands of lives might have been lost. SAGE found that cancelling the easing of restrictions on Monday 17 May would have dramatically cut the number of hospitalisations down the line, perhaps to a peak of 300 per day.

Some scientists point to a relatively quick shallowing of the infection spike in India (which is nevertheless still sky high), to suggest that the variant is not as transmissible as feared, and that the high rate of infection has to do with the “founder effect”, where infected people pass on the virus to large, multigenerational households.

However, the official numbers of cases in India are notoriously unreliable, as evidenced by the sheer evidence of bodies piled high in makeshift graves, while the sick clog hospital beds. And the speed at which this variant is outcompeting other strains does suggest a significant growth advantage.

A feature of the new spike in Britain is that it mostly affects young people, most of whom have yet to be vaccinated.

The surge of cases in the north west seems to have been driven by schoolchildren contracting the virus in big numbers, with the number of positive tests among children under the age of 14 in Bolton tripling in a week, a consequence of the Tories’ rush to reopen schools.

Most of the new hospitalisations are people in their 30s. By contrast, among Bolton residents aged 60-64, there were no new cases, and while there were small leaps in the age brackets between 65 and 79, cases in the over-80s decreased.

On the one hand, this does suggest that the vaccines are providing protection against serious illness. It also doesn’t necessarily follow that younger people are more susceptible to this variant, simply that they are more likely to mix in public and come into contact with the virus.

However, the rapid spread of this more-transmissible strain among younger people means the sheer law of numbers will result in a high number of people becoming seriously ill, which will in turn put severe pressure on the health service if it continues.

And while a surge in vaccinations is welcome, it takes at least two weeks before people acquire immunity after being jabbed, in which time the variant will have spread widely across the country.

Therefore, the government should be combining an increased pace of vaccinations with a slowdown or temporary pause on unlocking the country, until it can be confirmed through testing that this new variant is under control.

If things go as they are planned, and with the Tories reluctant to change course, SAGE warns of a “substantial resurgence of hospitalisations (similar to, or larger than, previous peaks)”. In other words, this pandemic risks becoming a recurring nightmare.

Deja vu

Ordinary British people hearing all this will be struck with a queasy sense of deja vu. Just like last summer, this weak and crisis-ridden Tory government is coming out with confusing and contradictory statements, and refusing to act before a calamity is already underway: by which time it is already too late.

For example, despite urging “caution” about planning foreign holidays this summer, 170 countries are presently on the government’s “amber” list, to which travel is legal.

While Health Secretary Matt Hancock stated that people should only travel to these countries for exceptional reasons, other ministers have suggested it is fine for Britons to go abroad to “visit friends”.

The new variant has already been detected throughout the world, not only in India’s neighbours Pakistan and Nepal, but as far afield as the USA and Germany.

Unleashing British tourists throughout the world after 21 June, when not everyone will have even been vaccinated, is a recipe for exporting the Indian variant internationally - just like the Kent variant last summer.

And on Wednesday 12 May, Johnson warned of “a high likelihood of a surge this winter”, involving “even greater suffering” than last year. Only two days prior, he claimed the country will return “close to normal” next month!

The Tories openly admit that they foresee a disaster on the horizon, and their response is to close their eyes, cross their fingers, and reap the consequences.

In a very revealing interview on Channel 4 following Johnson’s press conference on Saturday 15 May, Dr Deepti Gurdasani, an epidemiologist from Queen Mary University in London, could barely contain her exasperation:

“I’m completely baffled by the PM’s response today. They [the government] clearly acknowledge that this variant is more transmissible than the Kent variant… We’ve been told this is very concerning, but at the same time, the government doesn’t seem to be doing very much to keep it in check.

“I can’t understand if this variant is so concerning, why have we adopted a wait-and-see approach? Why are we taking such a huge gamble with people’s lives? When we know this could have disastrous consequences… why wait for that to happen and then for example have long lockdowns in the future? Why not act early for once and prevent the spread? 

“We need to know more, but the approach shouldn’t be ‘let’s go ahead and open while we find out,’ the approach should be ‘let’s be cautious and prevent harm as far as possible.’”

In truth, the degenerate, incompetent and self-serving political representatives of the British ruling class never abandoned the herd immunity strategy of “letting the bodies pile high” from February 2020.

The short-term interests of the capitalists, as ever, take priority over stemming the pandemic, saving lives, and averting catastrophes in the longer run.

The consequence is that the public has no idea what to believe, or what to do. It is no surprise that local officials in Bolton, as well as ordinary people, pushed back against a local lockdown, arguing that these measures “don’t work”.

In fact, lockdowns do work if applied properly, combined with other containment measures and vaccinations, as indeed we have seen in the past two months in Britain. 

What does not work is the haphazard approach the Tories have applied nationally, without adequate support for workers, councils and small businesses, in their desperate attempt to balance the interests of big business with fighting the pandemic.

Ordinary people have already suffered immeasurably under this public health crisis, which has killed over 3m people globally and robbed millions more of their livelihoods, security and personal freedoms.

None of this had to happen, as confirmed by a damning WHO report on the role of government failures in exacerbating the pandemic. And it doesn’t have to happen again.

Under a planned socialist economy, managed by the working class with the interests of the majority as its guiding maxim, the British government’s absurd and dangerous decisions would be out of the question.

The Indian variant is itself a consequence of the refusal of reactionary Prime Minister of India, Narendra Modi, to take the virus seriously, and vaccine nationalism by rich countries starving India of doses, a huge number of which are actually manufactured in India to begin with!

This all underscores the need to mobilise for the end of this rotten capitalist system, which is dragging out the pandemic in the name of profiteering and myopic national interest.