isIn Frankfurt, Germany, you can’t just grab a burger at a restaurant, go to an indoor pool, or have a drink at an indoor bar. Before doing this, you must present either a complete vaccination certificate or a negative test result from the last 24 hours. For this to work, testing centers are literally on every corner (often in converted barber shops), with results available within 10 to 15 minutes (you can either wait for the result or have it sent to you by E-mail). The test is free for children under 12 (who cannot yet be vaccinated) and for those who cannot be vaccinated for medical reasons.
And these are not the only precautions. In shops and on public transport, masks are mandatory – not cloth masks. Only surgical or medical grade FFP2 masks are permitted. And Oktoberfest, the world’s largest beer festival, was canceled this year due to limits on mass gatherings and international travel.
It is therefore not surprising that Germany is managing to bring its Covid epidemic under control and bring down the number of cases and deaths. England (and the UK), on the other hand, is experiencing a sharp increase in cases. Deaths are also on the rise: the daily death toll reported this week was the highest since March. As the UK government continues to ask people to be vigilant, to stay calm and to move on, time is running out. Time is running out to put basic measures in place to prevent another spike in cases as the NHS becomes overwhelmed and very likely another lockdown. Germany, on the other hand, keeps its economy and society going and appears to be in a strong position as the harsh winter months approach.
As we debate the need for ‘plan B’ – Health Secretary Sajid Javid said on Wednesday that he has no plans to implement any new restrictions – we risk being pressured to more and more towards a “plan C” (even more severe restrictions, such as bans on domestic mixing) to avoid a winter crisis. Wait and Watch just doesn’t work with Covid, as we’ve learned repeatedly over the past 22 months.
No one is talking about a ‘stay at home’ lockdown or a shutdown of certain areas, as happened in 2020 and early 2021. Instead, the measures that doctors and chiefs health requests are not very restrictive and aim to maintain maximum savings and social activity while limiting the spread of the virus.
The easiest step is to make masks mandatory again in shops and on public transport in England (masks are still mandatory in these contexts in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland). When it is left to individual discretion, many assume that the masks are not necessary (otherwise the government would enforce them) and stop wearing them. This puts other citizens, even mask wearers, in danger.
This is analogous to prohibiting indoor smoking or drunk driving. We regulate these actions in order to protect the health of others. Likewise, I wear a mask to protect you, and you wear a mask to protect me.
We now know that outdoor transmission of Covid is minimal, while indoor environments such as pubs, gyms, restaurants and nightclubs are the riskiest. This is because these are places where masks cannot be used, and where there is minimal social distancing and a lot of loud talk and little ventilation. Now that Britain has plenty of tests and vaccinations, we can keep those settings open. But they should require certification of the vaccine or a recent negative test result before the public is allowed in (France and New York City have already done so). This would mean that those who come to these places for fun, and those who work there, would be much better protected and could feel more secure.
And while Britain has had an early vaccination campaign, other countries are now overtaking us in terms of fully vaccinated people over the age of 12. as a lower participation among young people. Compare that with Portugal, where over 98% of those over 12 have been bitten, or even Australia, which is slowly increasing its coverage. The story of the tortoise and the hare comes to mind.
Ultimately, we are social beings who want to work and enjoy life and not be locked in our homes. We regularly take risks every day. But the goal of public policy for decades has been to minimize these risks so that we can protect the life and well-being of the community, and have a functioning society. Think speed limits on the roads, seat belts in cars, or liquor licenses. While vaccines and tests can now do a lot to control Covid, they can’t do everything, which is why new restrictions are so needed.
We need the UK government to step up now – and for England to align with steps other countries are taking to make Covid a manageable problem. On top of that, a big climate conference in Glasgow starts next week which will bring thousands to the country and likely lead to a spike. The writing is on the wall: If the government does not immediately move towards Plan B (i.e. masks and vaccine certification), infections and hospitalizations could escalate, and we will be pushed into a plan C this winter that will look a lot like confinement. .
We have now learned that the best way to have our freedoms and maintain a strong economy is to minimize Covid infections. It is time to start taking action now.