As the Great British public finally enjoy some summer sun, you can still detect a nervous rumbling. It’s the sound of government advisers fretting that the UK might be on the cusp of yet another Covid wave.
Susan Michie, the literal communist who sits on the Scientific Pandemic Insights Group on Behaviours, warns portentously that we are on a “knife edge” thanks to rising infections. Another adviser notes that the rise of the Indian variant means this is “not the virus that we were facing two months ago”. While businesses and punters yearn for clarity, Boris Johnson says the “data is ambiguous” and we’ll have to wait a little longer to be sure the June 21 unlocking will go ahead as planned.
Meanwhile the World Health Organization has set its mind to the important task of renaming the variants after Greek letters, because naming things after places is racist, or something.
This all sounds very alarming. Or it would, if this were still 2020, or a country with lower vaccination rates than the UK. Amid talk of “third waves” and delaying the June 21 unlocking, the fact we’ve already double-vaccinated more than half of the adult population, including virtually all of the most vulnerable people, seems curiously underplayed. It’s true that the Indian/Delta variant is a new, more infectious version of Covid, but it’s circulating in a population which is far, far more protected from it than in previous waves. Few have deserved a damehood more than Kate Bingham, the venture capitalist who has spearheaded the remarkable rollout.
The state of the current debate makes one feel the goalposts have shifted markedly from the original justification for restrictions – protecting the NHS from complete collapse. Last year, with hospitals groaning under the weight of new patients and daily deaths in their thousands, many of us grudgingly accepted extreme impositions in the face of an extreme threat. Now, though, the idea of the health service becoming overwhelmed with Covid patients looks blessedly remote.
Even in hot spot Bolton, while the number of cases has been much higher than last year, the number of hospitalisations has not exceeded 50 – compared to 170 in November. What’s more, the age profile of those needing treatment is markedly different too. Little wonder the head of NHS Providers says the vaccines have “broken the chain” between infection and serious illness.
Granted, there is still the possibility of a vaccine-busting variant emerging, but possibility alone is not enough to justify extending restrictions. Clearly, the Government should be vigilant about mutations, but running policies on the basis of a conceivable scenario, rather than a present risk, is a hell of a precedent to set.
Nor should we be taken in by the suggestion that we simply chuck a few more weeks of restrictions on to the existing roadmap. We’ve come this far, the argument goes, so what’s a few more weeks on top?
That seems less like containing risk than a public health version of the sunk cost fallacy – the buffet might taste awful, but we’ve paid our £20 and by God are we going to get our money’s worth. It also ignores that businesses have already racked up debt, trained staff and bought stock in anticipation of being able to fully open on June 21.
All of which is a roundabout way of saying the PM should stick to his road map and not confuse sensible vigilance with reckless caution.
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