It is a mark of this government’s ignorance of the response to the pandemic that Boris Johnson pledged in February to focus on “data, not dates” to ease social restrictions. We were entitled to expect this approach from Covid-19 from the start: it should have been driven by scientific evidence and a sober assessment of competing action plans. But government decision-making over the past 16 months has been too motivated by cabinet politics and internal party management, and too little by the nation’s public health. Johnson’s apparent determination to immediately ease a wide range of Covid control measures on July 19 despite sharply rising infection rates, reveals that the February pledge is hollow.
The government’s argument is that while the data has changed dramatically in recent weeks, with the rapid growth of the more infectious and vaccine-resistant Delta variant, the link between infection and death has been weakened sufficiently by the vaccination program to allow its self-called “freedom day” to move forward. Ministers are correct that vaccines have significantly reduced the risk of death for those who contract the virus: in January, one in 50 infections resulted in one death; today that number is only one in 1,000. But there are several important reasons to be more cautious than the government shows.
First, a decade of underfunding followed by Covid-19 has left the NHS under the worst pressure in its 70-year history. Doctors and NHS chiefs report that the health service is struggling to cope as it tries to deal with the backlog of waiting lists caused by the pandemic. The number of hospitalizations linked to Covid is starting to increase again. As infection rates continue to rise, there is a risk that even with a lower proportion of cases resulting in hospitalization, the sheer number of cases will again overwhelm the NHS, with knock-on effects for people with potentially illnesses. fatal such as cancer that will not be diagnosed or treated. One in 160 people in the UK now have the virus; government estimates suggest that Covid cases will rise to more than 100,000 a day soon after restrictions are eased.
Second, the impacts of long Covid can be extremely severe, and thousands of people – especially teens and people in their twenties who do not yet have the protection of the vaccine – can end up living with its debilitating symptoms for months on end. due to leaving The Covid quickly spread through the unvaccinated population. We do not yet know enough about the long-term health impacts of the long Covid. Yet its risks do not appear to have figured in the government’s calculations on openness.
Third, little data remains on the effectiveness of vaccines in the 500,000 immunocompromised people in the UK. The government has yet to release guidelines for clinically vulnerable people, who may need to protect themselves after July 19 due to relaxed restrictions. This could probably be avoided if relaxation was delayed until more people were vaccinated and population level immunity was higher.
If the Delta variant hadn’t been introduced so quickly in the UK after Johnson delayed India’s redlisting for international travel for weeks in the spring, the risks of simultaneously relaxing so many restrictions July 19 would have been weaker. England Chief Medical Officer Chris Whitty has indicated there may be benefits to opening up in the summer rather than the fall, when the NHS will come under more pressure. But one wonders why the government is not delaying for a few more weeks until more people have received both doses of the vaccine. Currently, just over half of the population has received both doses; later in the summer this proportion will be significantly higher. This would help curb the spread of the Delta variant and reduce the risk of developing more vaccine-resistant variants. The government, instead, appears to be allowing Covid to spread among children and younger groups to boost their immunity, rather than rolling out vaccination for 12 to 15 year olds like some other countries are doing. But the risks of long-term Covid in adolescents are unknown and potentially significant.
These decisions involve finely judged assessments of risks and benefits, and a tremendous degree of uncertainty. Yet Johnson has repeatedly failed to act quickly during the pandemic, with fatal consequences. Additionally, his government has pledged to abandon low-cost, harmless interventions, such as mandatory masks in indoor public spaces, despite evidence suggesting they are effective in reducing community transmission and high levels of support. audience granted to them. It gives the impression of a government still swayed by Conservative MPs ideologically opposed to masks because they ridiculously view them as a symbol of restricted freedom. Johnson’s emphasis on personal responsibility suggests that he himself is still motivated by a loathing for the collective actions needed to control a pandemic, and not enough by scientific evidence and data.
Time and time again in this pandemic, Johnson has lifted social restrictions too soon or delayed his action. With a virus spreading exponentially in a population that is not fully vaccinated, the costs of these missteps can be unbearably high. As more people receive their second vaccine, these tradeoffs continue to change. If the government goes ahead with easing most of the remaining restrictions on July 19, we can only hope that this time it pays off. The political cost Boris Johnson will pay if he gets it wrong will be high. The human cost that we will all pay will be tragic.