Richard North, 07/01/2022  

I don't rank the subjects in which I am least interested. To do so would belie the lack of interest. But, if I were to do so, Serbian tennis players and Australia would be close to the top – or bottom, depending on how you rank them. Combining the subjects drags them down even further, or up.

Yet the combination was top of the news agenda for most of yesterday, replaced on the BBC website only by its obsession with US politics, as it rehearsed last year's Capitol attack, offering four unbroken hours of video coverage of the events.

I don't know what that says about the legacy media's news values – or mine – but it is probably fair to say that mine and the rest of the media are not in perfect harmony – and less so with the Guardian which has just won investigation and journalist of the decade awards, respectively for coverage of Windrush scandal and for the Panama Papers investigation.

Scoop of the decade, it seems, went to The Times for its work exposing sexual misconduct by Oxfam workers in Haiti. But the Guardian was also nominated in this category for its reporting on Dominic Cummings breaching lockdown restrictions to drive to Barnard Castle during the first Covid lockdown.

As regards today's front pages, the one thing you won't find at the top of the bill is Covid, presumably because the daily "case" rate (actually positive tests) has dropped from 194,747 yesterday, to 179,756. Since this hardly fits with the rampant surge narrative, it is being played down in some quarters. Only the BBC is reporting: "Daily cases rising sharply".

The Guardian, however, is doing its best to spread the gloom, highlighting the seven-day "case" figure, which is up 29 percent on the week before.

So desperate, it seems, is the paper to ramp up the crisis that it points out that there were 17,988 "Covid patients" in hospital, telling us that this figure is up from the 17,295 recorded the day before. What it doesn't state is that these are "with" Covid, including patients admitted for other reasons who have subsequently tested positive for the virus.

Further obfuscating the data, it refers to the latest weekly Flu and Covid-19 Surveillance report from the UK Health Security Agency, rather than the daily reports in the official website, which has hospital admissions dropping from their 29 December peak of 2,585 to the 2,078 recorded on 2 December, while patients in mechanical ventilation beds have dropped marginally from 911 to 875 (as of 5 December).

We are told, though, that there have been a further 231 deaths within 28 days of a positive Covid test, without a reminder that the previous day's figure (unadjusted) was 334. Nor are we allowed to know that testing remains at record levels, standing at 2,031729 compared with yesterday's 2,050,101 – once again above the two-million mark.

What isn't really being discussed openly either is that the booster vaccination programme seems to have stalled. Some might say that it has collapsed. The initial target, of course, was that all adults were to be jabbed by the end of the year, later "clarified" when the government explained that this meant everyone would receive an offer of a jab by the end of the year.

The high-profile vaccinations over Christmas Day turned out to be little more than a publicity stunt, with only 10,480 turning out, compared with the pre-Christmas daily peak of 968,665, on 21 December. And since Christmas, as I suggested might happen, the programme has struggled to pick up momentum. The latest count stands at 247,478 with the overall rate standing obstinately at around 60 percent (60.6).

Johnson himself, in between fighting off more allegations, he seems to be worried about the (relatively) low rate of booster vaccinations, directing criticism against "anti-Covid vaccine activists" for spreading "nonsense" on social media, complaining of "conspiracy theorists".

"I want to say to the anti-vax campaigners, the people who are putting this mumbo jumbo on social media: they are completely wrong", he told broadcasters on a visit to a vaccination centre in Moulton Park, Northampton.

At least the Guardian seems to be on-side there, profiling a "California prosecutor" who campaigned against vaccine mandates, reporting that she has died of Covid while unvaccinated.

One bit of news we've been waiting for comes via the Mail, which is telling us that hospital stays for Covid patients are getting shorter. From May 1 last year, the paper says, over 80s were usually hospitalised for 11 days, but since 1 December they have typically required a bed for around five.

It is a similar story for the 50-69 and 70-79 age ranges. During the third wave, the first group needed hospital beds for seven days, the latter eight. Now both are down to five days. For those under 50, dwell time falls from four days to three. And overall, mortality has dipped twenty-fold - to around 0.15 percent of cases now compared with over 3 percent at the pandemic's worst.

This, the Mail thinks, could be a game-changer for the NHS, and it certainly welcome news. But this is not what the Guardian wants us to hear. It focuses on telling us that "Hospitals outside London 'expect more Covid patients than last January'", citing Chris Hopson, chief executive of NHS Providers.

He "fears" that hospitals outside the capital will not be as able to cope with the new wave of admissions as those in London (without remaining us that some areas on London had the lowest rate of vaccination in the country). His view is that deeper staffing problems, higher levels of sickness absence, older populations and in some cases worse social care provision will make the difference.

With equal prominence, we are being told: "At least 24 NHS trusts declare critical incidents due to Covid pressures" - a factoid "revealed" by transport secretary, Grant Shapps. However, he does concede that it is "not entirely unusual" for NHS trusts to "go critical over the winter", even if "there are very real pressures which I absolutely recognise".

On the other side of the political divide, though, the Telegraph is taking a more optimistic view, headlining: "Omicron wave may be slowing as Covid cases drop for second day in row - but over-75s still at risk".

It too is playing with figures, but it does add that cases are continuing to fall in London and there is evidence that steep rises are beginning to tail off in the North West, the South East, the East Midlands and the East of England.

To a certain extent, this was mirrored in The Times yesterday which ran a lightweight article headed: "Finally, the worst of Covid may be over", having writer Helen Rumbelow burble that "Covid doesn't feel quite so scary", asking: "Is there hope at last?"

Sky News, though, is reporting that some 200 Armed Forces personnel are being deployed to support the NHS in London "as hospitals grapple with staff shortages".

Military medics will assist NHS doctors and nurses with patient care, while general duty personnel will help fill gaps caused by other absences, leading the Royal College of Nursing to claim that the deployment means the government can no longer deny there is a "staffing crisis" within the NHS.

Whether people care to run screaming for the exit, or not, therefore, now seems very much to be influenced by their places in the political spectrum. Clearly, Johnson loyalists are more optimistic while those who oppose him see Covid as another stick with which to beat the prime minister.

As to what actually is happening, eventually we might get some objective reporting, although that might have to wait until the situation has settled, whence the media can tells us what we already know.

Also published on Turbulent Times.

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