Richard North, 08/01/2022  

Two years into the Covid epidemic, it is fair to say that it is still absorbing so much bandwidth – at almost all levels of society – that it is blocking out much of the normal political discourse, and distorting both priorities and responses.

Part of the problem may be that the ongoing soap-opera has become so embedded in the daily fare of politics and the media that it is difficult to let go. It's not like a war, where there is a defined end with an official declaration of peace. The saga just goes on and on, without apparent end.

However, an end may be in sight. Virtually every metric of consequence suggests that the burden of illness in the Covid epidemic – in the UK, at least – is proportionately less during this wave, compared with the previous episodes. And even some of the indicators are now proving to be ambiguous, on the back of real data.

For instance, we have had considerable difficulty distinguishing between those admitted to hospital because they are stricken with Covid 19, and those who are in hospital for other reasons and happen to test positive for the virus – without necessarily suffering symptoms of the disease.

There have even been suggestions that long-term patients in mental hospitals, who have been demonstrated positive for the virus – with no actual illness - have been included in the hospital figures.

Now, however, recently published data indicate that number of patients included in Covid hospital figures who were actually admitted for other conditions rose to nearly 50 percent in some areas.

NHS data up to 4 January show that there were 13,045 people in hospital with Covid in England by that date, but 4,825 had been admitted for other reasons. In the Midlands, true cases of Covid are currently just 55.3 percent of cases and fell to a low of 53.8 percent on Monday.

This means, the Telegraph says, that nearly half (46.2 per ent) of those included in the figures had been admitted for a different reason, but tested positive on arrival or shortly afterwards.

For England as a whole, nearly 38 percent of Covid hospital cases are not primarily Covid – up from 33 percent in the previous week. In London, the percentage of non-Covid cases included in the figures hit a high of 44.7 percent on 2 January but has since fallen to 38.2 percent.

As to the overall effect of the disease, we have the Mail advancing the thesis that the omicron variant is even "less deadly" than seasonal flu, killing 100 times fewer people than the delta variant.

This is very far from being a universally accepted finding but it does presage hopes for a direction of travel which, if it materialises, could mark the point at which Covid slips its leash to become endemic, a background illness of the same significance as winter flu or even the common cold.

Bluntly, this cannot happen soon enough as the obsession with this illness is fast becoming a luxury we cannot afford. In fact, with every passing day, it seems that we are no longer dealing with a Covid crisis. Rather, it has morphed seamlessly into the annual NHS crisis, where the underlying defects in the service are being obscured by the emphasis on Covid.

And this is by no means the only sector where this is happening. Covid was already making it difficult to discern what was happening with problems such as Brexit, but now other issues have since multiplied and come to the fore. A already complex picture is even more difficult to read.

Amongst those "other issues" is the soaring price of gas, the implications of which have been treated with an almost criminal level of superficiality by politicians and media. This is not just a matter of increased domestic energy bills – bad enough though that is.

Higher energy prices will have a knock-on effect right though the economy, from the energy-intensive production of materials such as aluminium, to the manufacture of glass containers. But what has barely been rehearsed is the impact on the price of food in the coming year, not least because of high fertiliser prices which could see lower crop yields.

But, while the blinkered economic debate in the UK, particularly on Twitter, insists Brexit is to blame for food prices and shortages where they arise, these are global issues, affecting other developed countries such as Germany and the United States, as well as less developed countries such as Pakistan, where political instability is already rife and greater pressure on food supplies could tilt the country over the edge.

One has to go far beyond the legacy media in the UK, though, to learn that there is a burgeoning wheat shortage, not just in the United States but globally, where stocks are already down and consumption is expected to outpace production in 2022.

The best indicator of things to come are world food prices, which jumped 28 percent in 2021 to their highest level in a decade. Hopes for a return to more stable market conditions this year are slim.

Part of the reason for the price hikes is said to be China, which is accused of hoarding key commodities.

By mid-2022, according to the US Department of Agriculture, China will hold 69 percent of the world's corn reserves, 60 percent of its rice and 51 percent of its wheat. By China's own estimation, these reserves are at a "historically high level". For China, such stockpiles are necessary to ensure it won’t be at the mercy of major food exporters such as the US.

It should also be noted that European producers are still having Covid-related staffing shortages, and though the UK has relaxed visa quotas for food workers, attracting foreign workers has not been successful and retention is proving difficult.

While we obsess over Covid, significant changes are taking place in the industry, and more changes will need to be made to accommodate the vastly changed economic and operational conditions. It is unlikely that consumption patterns can remain unchanged. We are looking to a future where the food bank is a permanent feature and, with inflation on the rise, Brits are about to discover anew the real meaning of the word austerity.

As to our energy woes, Europe has made a rather unwholesome mess for itself and there is now global competition for LNG supplies. As we see LNG ships being diverted to Europe, players like Japan are going to come back into the field and out-bid the Europeans.

Any temporary relief from diverted supplies is unlikely to extend beyond February and a sign of things to come is the closure this week of Hunterston B nuclear power station, after 46 years in service.

The problem with energy, as we have been pointing out endlessly, is that there is a considerable time-lag between policy formulation and seeing the results. The time to act to ensure energy security and affordability was over a decade ago. Successive European governments failed to fix the roof when the sun was shining. And in fact, went up on a ladder with hammer to bash more holes in the roof.

As to Brexit, haulage routes are beginning to choke under the weight of border formalities, which the government is presently putting down to teething problems.

Doubtless, the a new system will take time to find a rhythm and hauliers will get used to the new requirements, but will also see some supply chains folding. Unplugging form the single market is not consequence-free, the extent of which is yet to impact, as the phytosanitary controls at the UK borders do not kick in until later in the year.

Then there us the relentless propaganda on climate change, which is poisoning public policy and adding vastly to costs of living across the board, which thrive in the darkness of anti-science and technical illiteracy, and which need to be exposed to the light.

Altogether, it is time for our politicians in particular to break out of the turgid introspection induced by Covid, and to get back to work. From being the great threat of the age, omicron is rapidly becoming the least of our problems, the extent of which can no longer be neglected.

Also published on Turbulent Times.

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