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The pandemic

Are we ready for a winter Covid surge?

Daniel Leal-Olivas/Getty Images

With yet another “tough winter looming”, it’s hard not to feel a sense of déjà vu, says Heather Stewart in The Guardian. Covid infection rates are up to 50,000 a day and this week saw a daily death toll of 223 – the highest figure since March. Scientists and NHS executives are “sounding the alarm”. But, as it did last year, the government insists there’s no need to panic. Business Secretary Kwasi Kwarteng says people should “absolutely” be booking Christmas parties; Health Secretary Sajid Javid acknowledges that daily cases could hit 100,000, but says there are still no plans to bring in “Plan B” measures such as mandatory face coverings and working from home. Ministers are apparently hoping that the school half-term next week will “act as a mini firebreak” on infections. If it doesn’t – and the vaccine booster rollout isn’t fast enough to address waning immunity – the government may find itself “mugged by reality” once again.

It’s amazing how many people are in denial that we’re “still in a pandemic at all”, says Philip Ball, also in The Guardian. Since mid-August as many Britons have died from Covid every fortnight – 1,400 or so – as usually die directly from flu in a whole year. And we’re faring much worse than places that sensibly haven’t relaxed all their restrictions: our per capita infection rate is “four times higher than Germany, nine times higher than France, and 25 times higher than Spain”. Sadly, Boris and his chums seem to think their early vaccine success was a “get-out-of-jail-free card that requires them to do nothing else”.

The government isn’t panicking because there’s nothing to panic about, says Fraser Nelson in The Daily Telegraph. Almost half the rise in cases is made up of teenagers and children, “who are far less likely to get sick”. Only 6% of hospital beds are occupied by Covid patients, down from 30% in January. And there are currently “more empty hospital beds (4,940) than beds with Covid patients (4,901)”. Last winter it suited ministers to “talk about an NHS on the brink” to encourage lockdown compliance. But with so many Britons now vaccinated, a “change of mood has taken place right across government”. Javid and his fellow ministers now rightly want the emphasis on “reassurance” rather than “alarmism”.

Maybe so, but no one really knows what will happen next, says Tom Whipple in The Times. When I asked two household-name scientists what the winter would hold, they laughed at the question. “Not the foggiest,” one replied. “Haven’t a clue,” said the other. We may see the vaccine boosters kick in, new antiviral treatments approved and an “unremarkable flu year”. Or we may see cases continue to defy gravity, a rise in hospital admissions and flu “running rampant”. Who knows? And who knows how the government will respond? “Our future is as unpredictable as ever.”