Omicron causes omnishambles
If the experience of other countries is anything to go by, the greatest threat from the Omicron variant is not that it will cause serious symptoms and widespread death, but that its rapid transmission will paralyse everything from hospitals to shops as infected people are forced to isolate.
It is still not entirely clear how it will affect older people and people with suppressed immune systems. So far the vast majority of Bermuda’s cases are among teenagers through to people in their 30s or 40s, but more older people are being infected.
But the early indications are that Omicron, while more virulent, is less severe and of shorter duration than the Delta variant. So it appears, at least for now, to be less dangerous than Delta, and in a perverse way, may hold the key to wider natural immunity.
There are now two people in hospital. When there were 900 cases in the last wave — on September 10 — there were 28 people in hospital and five in intensive care.
For that reason, and because of the problems that mass isolation could cause to everyday life, the Government should consider shortening the isolation periods people are required to undergo after they have received a negative test.
At the same time, it is also clear that the Government’s testing system is under severe strain and largely as a result of poor planning, broke down over the New Year’s weekend.
That is why many schools failed to open yesterday and why many travellers were forced to watch in despair as their flights left without them.
It can be argued, and no doubt will be, that the weekend when Omnicron turned into an omnishambles was a perfect storm. A combination of high numbers of people leaving the island, the requirement by the US to have a negative test within 24 hours, the requirement by the education ministry to have teachers and students PCR tested in the days leading up to the schools’ reopening — and then having the teachers refuse to be tested on public holidays — and the need to type for differences between Omicron and Delta variants combined to break the system.
It may have been a perfect storm, but it was also an entirely predictable one. It was no secret that teachers were refusing to be tested before Tuesday. It was obvious many people who had travelled to the island for the Christmas holidays would be returning home or going back to school or university. The US Government had long ago said it would require 24-hour tests.
And yet Bermuda utterly failed to prepare for these events. The left hand seemed to have no idea that the right hand existed, let alone what it was doing.
To compound this, there was simply no leadership.
Somehow, with Omicron sweeping across the island, the Premier, the Deputy Premier and the Minister of Health all conspired to be absent. That left the Government in the hands of the Minister of Education, Diallo Rabain, who failed to sort out the problems in his own ministry, let alone the rest of the Government.
Then, to compound matters, he apparently went on leave just as schools were supposed to reopen, leaving Tinée Furbert, the Acting Minister, to carry the can for that fiasco.
No one questions the idea that premiers and ministers of government deserve a break, and should be able to spend time with their families, just like ordinary mortals. Nor would anyone dispute that David Burt and Kim Wilson in particular have been under exceptional pressure since the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic and that their colleagues have been under marginally less strain.
But it defies logic that schedules and planned trips were not altered when the sheer magnitude of the Omicron variant became clear, even to the Government, who seemed to be trying to wish it away even before Christmas.
There is little sign that other countries did not have leadership during this period. And the miracle of the internet means that no one is completely removed from contact. No one begrudges people having well-earned vacations, but this is what cabinet ministers signed up for. It is that simple.
And of course the Government will be aware that voters have long memories. Just as they rewarded Mr Burt and his party for their successful handling of the first year of the pandemic, so they should punish them for their mishandling of this episode. That is how democracy is supposed to work.
Of course, the next general election is probably a long way off. So Mr Burt and his team have time to make amends. They should use it wisely.