Vallance and Whitty seemed trapped by the need to maintain the public’s concerns. We are familiar with the chart that appears on the BBC every night showing cases in the UK moving closer and closer to the 5,000 seen at the peak of the virus in April. Anyone familiar with this graph knows that it is misleading. There were no proper tests in April and even the BBC says that peak figure was a wild underestimate. Also, testing practices vary so much in the UK and Europe that comparisons are meaningless. But the graph persists.
The disease has clearly returned, as expected, but nothing like its April virulence. The figure to which most epidemiologists attach importance, that of “excessive deaths” compared to the seasonal norm, which exploded in April, now remains close to normal. Admissions to Covid-19 hospital are increasing, but by around 200 per day, up from 3,000 per day in April. With 991 people dying from regular flu in a week, up from 78 from Covid, the virus cannot be described as so worrisome as to require a return to national lockdown.
Citing a potential “exponential rise” in deaths as Vallance did, is deploying the same threat used by Neil Ferguson of Imperial College with his forecast of half a million deaths in March.
Respectable scientists outside the Downing Street clique plead almost daily for the nation to get used to living with the disease throughout the winter, protecting the vulnerable and ensuring that hospitals can cope with a winter upsurge. The prospects for a vaccine next year, as Vallance said, are really encouraging.
Anyone currently traveling elsewhere in Europe notes the almost universal mask-wearing and handwashing, but none of Britain’s indiscipline, panic and economic implosion. Scientists today have provided no evidence for the effectiveness of the Rule of Six or an undisclosed “circuit break” technique. Yet these universal measures are clearly devastating for large sectors of the economy. As for excusing college students, office workers, and grouse shooters, we’re left in the dark.
Rumors from Whitehall abound of deep divisions between the scientists’ “bubble” around Boris Johnson and other ministers struggling to keep the economy and normal life in some sort of order. In other words, UK policy is fractured just when it needs to be consistent. This virus is clearly endemic until a vaccine is developed. It seems inevitable. It is not inevitable that the government will cripple the UK economy beyond anything that has been experienced before, restricting personal freedom and inflicting misery and mental stress on millions of people. It is only in Britain that this is considered and that “science” encourages it.
• Simon Jenkins is a Guardian columnist