May I take this opportunity to wish all of you a happy New Year. No one will be sad to see 2020 disappearing in our rear view mirror. 2021 sees glimmers of hope – but as days wear on, it seems increasingly clear that the trajectory towards that better future will remain a bumpy one. I think few are surprised we have entered a new lockdown, but I know just how many will be as frustrated as I am at the turn of events.
I have made the point before that the virus is not a moral actor, choosing only to infect those who disregard the rules. It is not fitted with a GPS device that means it is constrained by the often illogical nature of local government boundaries. Nor is it paying much attention to the influence of Pope Gregory XIII who essentially codified our modern calendar system back in the 16^th century. It may be 2021, but no one has told coronavirus.
It seems particularly strange here on the Fylde where infection rates have not yet spiralled in the way they have done elsewhere. The risk may seem little different, the anecdotal evidence from family and friends of serious cases few and far between. However, as we all know from last year, whatever hopes we might have had the virus would not spread northwards, it eventually did. It seems highly likely it will do so again.
The greatest impact the new variant is having is on hospital admissions, which are now as high as they were back in April. But this conceals significant regional difference. Hospital occupancy by covid patients across the North West actually fell from 21.3% to 17.1% between 17 November and 29 December. Contrast this with London where it rose from 9% to 32.9% over that same period. Were we to see that scale of increase locally, I think we would have a much clear perception of risk. We must also bear in mind that whilst treatment for covid has marked improved alongside survival rates, it also means longer stays in hospital and thus higher bed occupancy levels.
Indeed, the emergence of the new variant so soon after news of the Pfizer vaccine demonstrated the ‘scissors’ nature of the situation we stuck in. We now face a virus which may be a variant, but given how much more transmissible it appears to be, and its ability to raise the R rate by anything between 0.4 and 0.9, I am sure we can all appreciate how much harder it will be to drive that R number below 1 as we were able to do last year. The Prime Minister, who I watched on Andrew Marr, essentially made that point (when he wasn’t being interrupted every 5 secs by an interviewer who seems to think his opinions matter more than what a Prime Minister has to say).
The fact we face what is, to all intents and purposes therefore, a new virus with a different profile, the efficient deployment of the vaccine becomes essential. Unsurprisingly, the Daily Mail and its ilk have already started hoovering up every last scrap of anecdotal evidence that it is all going wrong. Inevitably, not everyone will be vaccinated as rapidly as they and I might like.
Where there are delays it is not because – necessarily – of a lack of supplies or people, but rather that one element of a complex chain has not quite slipped into place which is the quality control phase conducted by the MHRA. Once that is flowing smoother over the course of the week, stories of delays should hopefully evaporate. I am also aware of other kinks - for example, that a batch of Pfizer vaccines didn’t make it to Blackpool properly refrigerated before Christmas, so a number of people had their vaccines rescheduled.
It may be helpful to those waiting in anticipation if I explain that, in essence, the vaccine is being delivered by ‘practice networks’ (i.e. a small group of GP practices) in separate waves across the Fylde. The first wave comprised three practices who are all part of a network run from Whitegate Drive covering the centre of Blackpool, for example.
Not all GP practices have yet commenced roll-out. Participation by GP practices is not obligatory, and where a practice group chooses not to or cannot do so – for reasons such as staff sickness or lack of space perhaps – the CCG/vaccine task force has to find alternatives which takes longer. Where the practice is not delivering the vaccine, it must still ensure that it shares patient information so the right patients can be called up and invited.
The alternative methods might, for example, include community pharmacy staff delivering the vaccine in either the same or a different location – as will happen with one large practice locally. In addition, within 2-3 weeks, there will be a mass community vaccination centre at the Winter Gardens which will also deliver 500+ vaccines a day to patients according to the same priority list as the GPs, scooping up those not covered by their own practices contacting them.
The next press bonanza seems to be around the change in strategy which the Government’s scientific advisers have recommended. Whereas ideally, Pfizer vaccines require two doses for complete protection, the focus is now on delivering as many first vaccines of either type to as many as possible. Pfizer offers a high level of protection much higher at 80-90% on the first dose.
It is also, given the spiralling of new cases, important to prioritise getting some protection to as many as possible rather than full protection to fewer – as Jonathan Van Tam commented yesterday: “‘If a family has two elderly grandparents and there are two vaccines available, it is better to give both 89 per cent protection than to give one 95 per cent protection with two quick doses, and the other grandparent no protection at all”.
Were we not seeing such a rapid rise in infection levels, the previous plans would have been perfectly acceptable, but when the facts change, as they have with the new variant, it is prudent to reconsider how we vaccinate.
I am also getting plenty of emails from people suggesting other groups be given additional priority as they are in ‘frontline’ jobs – which I would agree with also. But the focus has to be on protecting those age groups most likely to lose their life to covid if infected, so those who work in care homes or hospitals should also be at the front of the queue.
Right now, given deaths nationwide and hospital occupancy is back to levels last seen in April, this seems the right balance to strike.
As remains the case, these Letters from Westminster focus on coronavirus, which is the greatest challenge for any government in my lifetime. But it would be remiss of me not to note the agreement of a deal with the EU before Christmas. I am hopeful that much of the rancour of recent years can subside. The true test of Brexit was always going to be what any Government chose to do with the powers returned to it. The benefits will be seen in a small but steady accumulation of decisions to do something differently, or take a different approach to a newly-emerging turn of events.
One should always focus on the positives in life. By the time snowdrops or daffodils appear, I hope we may see a clearer path out of the current crisis than we do now. More vaccinations will balance out the greater risk of infection. Normality will not return immediately, and the economic consequences remain indescribable almost, but for all of us who have pressed the pause button on our lives, 2021 should be a year when we can press ‘play’ once more.
Paul Maynard MP
Conservative - Blackpool North & Cleveleys
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Paul Maynard MP
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