A study by two business academics has found a “striking relationship” between areas that voted for Brexit and Covid death rates in England.
“Districts that voted most heavily in favour of remaining in the European Union (top quintile) have a one third lower death rate, a quarter lower infection rate, and a higher vaccination rate than districts with the fewest Remainers (bottom quintile).”
The link appears to be relative social deprivation. Brexit appealed to those in poorer areas who felt “left behind”, ignored by the supposed elite and seeing their living standards falling in relative terms. They were persuaded that the EU was at the root of much of their problems, and they would be “set free” to enjoy a more prosperous and equal future outside.
That went well, didn’t it? But there is also a correlation between social deprivation and higher Covid death rates. We saw that people in insecure jobs, and forced to live in overcrowded housing, were more likely to get the virus and die of it than the prosperous middle classes in the leafy shires.
Great Yarmouth: 4th highest Brexit vote
The study ranked the top and bottom 20 districts, correlating death rates and Remainer voting. Top was Richmond upon Thames, one of the richest parts of the country and one with a history of favouring the Liberal Democrats, a reliable indicator of pro-EU views. Scoring second to bottom is East Anglia’s own Great Yarmouth, pro-Brexit and like many UK seaside towns with areas of deprivation and reliant on largely casual seasonal labour.
The link between Brexit, deprivation and low vaccination levels is less clear and more controversial. There have been studies linking Brexit voting and lower educational achievement. In such areas people may simply not understand the need to vaccinate, or may not be sufficiently engaged with their community to receive the message.
Certainly the hard core of the unvaccinated is a concern, and does link with poverty. In some deprived areas 30 percent of adults are unvaccinated.
Whitty advice: limit social contacts
Which brings us to the events of this week. Prof Chris Whitty, England’s chief medical officer, has urged us to limit our socialising over Christmas. There are already signs that people are staying home more though this may be to avoid catching the virus and having to isolate just before Christmas. And the Queen has as I write just cancelled her Christmas lunch…
One suspects that in an ideal world Whitty would have liked to see England return to a complete lockdown, given that the latest daily infection figure(£) was the highest since the pandemic began.
This is impossible, both politically and practically. Boris Johnson cannot risk another bruising rebellion from his backbenchers, some of whose sanity(£) would seem to be at best questionable. Claiming, as Sir Desmond Swayne has, that there were more road fatalities than Covid deaths last year is not merely profoundly stupid and wrong. It amounts to Covid denial.
Cancelling Christmas won’t work
Johnson cannot risk another blow to his popularity, by cancelling Christmas again. And on a practical level, to what extent would a further lockdown be obeyed? People are horrified at the thought of another ruined Christmas and cynical, after the evidence of Those Christmas Parties last year, that those in charge would bother to follow the rules. Why should I not see my loved ones again this year while you party?
It is beginning to be possible to discern how the pandemic might play out in coming years, and those unvaccinated are the key. It is unlikely that anyone who has not yet had any jab will rush to do so now, no matter how much cajolery and persuasion the Government and the experts bring to bear. The older ones have had the best part of a year to get vaccinated. They haven’t chosen to yet.
This means there will remain a reservoir of the unvaccinated, say 10 per cent or more of the UK population. This is not good news, because the likelihood is that the virus will continue to evolve new variants among the world’s huge unvaccinated population, to be imported into the UK.
That unvaccinated minority will be vulnerable to these, and they will pass them on to a small but unlucky number of the vaccinated, which is what seems to be happening with the Omicron variant, as I understand it.
Living with covid
This is the future, I suspect, what you might call a “steady state” pandemic when every few months a new variant pops up and kills a number of people. There may or may not have to be new vaccines or vaccine renewals. Probably. This underlying death rate will have to be accepted, a bit like those road traffic deaths which we see as an acceptable price for being able to travel. Except I suspect that annual death toll from Covid and its variants will be rather higher than on the roads.
This will mean significant behavioural changes, as we have seen over the past couple of years in or out of lockdown. People who can, will work from home more, which as I have suggested is a mechanism for transferring resources from inner city areas where offices are located to pleasant suburban locations where those professionals are likely to live. So more job losses among poorly paid workers in those inner cities.
The future isn’t bright
People will be more cautious and less social, which is more bad news for the already battered hospitality industry. More pubs, bars and restaurants will close, with the loss of further low paid jobs.
There are other knock-on effects, on transport and the holiday industry. The Mayor of London, Sadiq Khan, is trying to hammer together a rescue package for Transport for London, which has been hit by falling passenger numbers.
An endless stop-start to foreign travel – France has just banned non-essential visitors from the UK again – would be ruinous for firms offering holidays abroad. There will be any number of other unforeseen consequences – will people visit the high street less and shop more online?
All this suggests a more cautious, less social, more unequal society will be the legacy of the pandemic, and one inured to an underlying low but steady death rate from it. Not exactly the future we expected two years ago, is it?