When Matt Hancock was challenged earlier this week about rise in cases of the Indian variant, he responded by emphasising that several of those in hospital with the disease were eligible for the vaccine but had chosen not to take it. This appears to have been a cynical ploy to deflect the blame from the government’s own failings.
Since then, we’ve seen a dangerous and divisive narrative emerging, in which instead of ministers being held to account, communities are being scapegoated around the UK. Mark Harper, the chair of the Covid Recovery Group, remarked that “wider society’s fate can’t be sealed by the actions of a small group of people,” whereas a hysterical Daily Mail front page talked about “vaccine refuseniks” threatening plans to lift Covid restrictions next month.
This is typical of the behaviour of this Conservative government and their allies. Each time it has found itself on the back foot during this pandemic, it has sought to pass the buck onto individuals instead of owning up to their own mistakes. We have a prime minister who tells the public to take personal responsibility for keeping coronavirus under control, while failing to do so himself.
Let us be clear here. This is not the fault of people in Bolton, Blackburn or Bedford. Nor is it right to say that vaccine hesitancy is the root cause of the rise of cases of the Indian variant. The rise in the number of cases is predominantly occurring in age groups that are not yet eligible for the jab: those aged between 10 and 44. And vaccine take-up in areas such as Bolton is broadly in line with the national average.
In any event, pointing the finger at hard-hit communities is not the answer. The reason that this new strain has seeded in certain communities is that the government delayed putting India on the red list until 23 April. This is despite the fact cases in India were sharply rising in March and April, with significant numbers of cases arriving from that country identified as being a variant of concern.
Ministers have struggled to explain this delay, but given that Boris Johnson was scheduled to visit India for trade talks, it does appear that he put the pursuit of a trade deal before public health. This means that a crucial opportunity to stop the Indian variant was missed. While we were locked up in our homes, the government let the virus in through the back door.
To prevent this from happening again, the government must sort out its chaotic travel policy and the mess it has made of quarantine measures at our borders. The All-Party Parliamentary Group on Coronavirus, of which I am a vice chair, recently heard evidence from border force representatives who told us that passengers are queueing for hours at airports, side by side with arrivals from red list countries. We heard that on average 100 fake Covid-19 test certificates are identified every day, with many more going undetected.
The government also needs to start getting the basics right, starting with a locally led test and trace system. With cases at low levels when we began to unlock in March, this was the obvious route to go down. Cases and their contacts could have been identified and isolated very quickly. Combined with proper financial support for those self-isolating, we could have controlled the number of cases much more effectively.
In addition, we need to prioritise – and not demonise – the communities where vaccine hesitancy is the highest. It is these groups that are both the most at risk of getting the virus, and the most hesitant to get vaccinated. I, therefore, welcome the surge vaccination centres that are being rolled out in the hardest-hit communities, as well as initiatives to encourage vaccine take up.
The successful work in this area has involved engaging with the local community and faith groups at a grassroots level to overcome deep-seated mistrust. However, divisive rhetoric threatens to undermine these efforts and alienate the very communities where vaccine take-up is already low.
Clive Lewis MP, and vice chair of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Coronavirus
Join our new commenting forum
Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies