Wales can’t keep lurching from lockdown to lockdown – we need to eliminate the virus, not manage it

Photo by AronPW on Unsplash

Adam Price, Leader of Plaid Cymru

With a figure of a further 44 people dying with Coronavirus in Wales reported yesterday and Covid-19 infections within hospitals rising to their highest weekly number since mid-April, these last few days have been among the most difficult since the pandemic began.

Let’s remind ourselves what this fire break is designed to do? It buys us time. It resets the clock so we can reset the strategy.

Lives and livelihoods are at stake. It’s time we focused on that bigger picture.

A Senedd motion amended by Plaid Cymru to include a pledge to adopt a zero-Covid strategy was backed by the Welsh Government.

This represents an important milestone in Wales’ Covid response, potentially. It’s a significant shift certainly from the language of ‘managing’ the virus to aggressively eliminating community transmission.

It means that the Welsh Government will now have to spell out how it intends to drive down the R number without inflicting further damage on the economy.

Let’s be clear – lockdown is not a strategy but rather the absence of strategy: a last resort to use when all else has failed. As David Nabarro of the WHO has said: ‘We really do appeal to all world leaders: stop using lockdown as your primary control method’.

 

Devastation

Not to have pulled the emergency chord in the situation we now find ourselves in would have been unconscionable. No responsible Government could ignore the clearest-cut scientific advice that hundreds would otherwise die from Covid and our hospitals would be overwhelmed with yet more non-Covid operations cancelled.

But it’s also vital we ask ourselves how did we get into this situation yet again and how can we avoid it in future. Lurching from one lockdown to another is neither sustainable nor desirable – there is simply too much at stake. We are living under the darkening skies of a looming mental health crisis and widespread unemployment.

This two-week fire break could arguably be the most pivotal period in the pandemic so far. Decisions made now could determine whether Wales is struck by successive waves of the virus, and a tsunami of economic and social devastation.

What the government does next must be decisive and different, starting with the radical improvement of our ‘test, trace and protect’ system.

The latest available data shows that only 55% of the 6,661 positive cases eligible for follow-up in Wales during that week were reached within 24 hours of referral to the contact tracing system. More worryingly, just 29% of close contacts eligible for follow-up were reached within 24 hours of the positive case that identified them being referred to the contact tracing system.

Plaid Cymru’s target of 100% of cases reached within 24 hours may be ambitious but it is also necessary and widely advocated within the scientific community by leading experts such as Professor Devi Sridhar, chair of global public health at the University of Edinburgh.

Every passing hour in which those who have encountered positive cases go about their lives oblivious to their exposure to the virus is a critical hour in which they may have transmitted Covid to others. On the positive side it’s important to recognise that the Welsh public sector Lab network and our dedicated local contract tracing teams are performing very strongly – the weak link in the chain is the UK Lighthouse network outsourced to a corporate consortium that has consistently failed to deliver.

There are also real advances in rapid testing methods, approved by the WHO, some of which are already being used in the field in Wales.

This strengthens the case for testing asymptomatic individuals (particularly key workers such as NHS staff, care workers and teachers), as recommended by Independent SAGE who note that about 50% of people infected remain asymptomatic.

Strategy

And it’s not just the testing system itself which needs bolstering, but the accompanying communications strategy that should secure the all-important public buy-in for the Welsh Government’s response to the pandemic.

Talk about another circuit-breaker in the New Year, as at least some in Government have begun to do, runs the risk of demoralising people. They need to know that their sacrifice this time is not just necessary but stands the chance of making a real difference.

We need to give them hope that we can escape the prospect of cycling in and out of lockdown indefinitely. That we don’t have to engage in a constant trade-off between health and the economy. The low and zero-Covid countries of Europe (Norway, Finland) and Asia/Australasia (Vietnam, Taiwan, Hong Kong, New Zealand, Japan, South Korea) after all also rank lowest in GDP decline and are free from many of the restrictions to normal life that lockdown represents.

Let’s use these countries’ experience as the starting point for a new strategy. This fire-break needs to be not just a break in the chain of transmission – but a break with old thinking about we defeat the virus and the start of a genuinely new approach.

It’s a vision that could unite us and inspire us as a nation in the cold, winter months ahead.

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