Word is that Boris Johnson will delay the 21 June re-opening by two weeks, possibly even a month — an announcement that has caused some division of opinion in the offices of The Spectator. In the circumstances (the Indian variant growing exponentially) I can see the case for waiting another week or so until we have more data. That’s not say that I want delay, just that the rise of the Indian variant in the UK has made me see the abolition of remaining restrictions as a finely-balanced argument. Whereas, a few weeks ago, I thought the facts heavily favoured going ahead with a full reopening. I discuss this with Kate Andrews, Katy Balls and Cindy Yu in today’s Coffee House Shots podcast.
While the Indian variant spreads, almost everyone in the at-risk age groups is now protected – so we expect it to translate farther less into hospital numbers (as per Bolton). But it’s early days. The Indian variant has been dominant for only a few weeks. For a long time, Britain had the lowest Covid levels in Europe. Now, we’re mid-range and our Covid is growing at pretty much the fastest rate in the continent. We used to have the lowest Covid in the G7, now it’s the highest. The Indian variant has changed the UK story: we may soon be the Europe’s capital of the India variant. The below graphs are from The Spectator’s data hub.
Against this, we have latest hospital figures – less than half the number envisaged by the lowest of the five SAGE scenarios published when the 21 June date was set.
Given that we have had 15 months of lockdown in its various forms and almost back to normal now, it seems reasonable to wait another week or two to collect more data and see if the link between cases and hospitalisations has indeed been broken by the vaccine.
But there are very valid concerns about the impact of a delay.
What if this will open the door to vaccine passports and notion of immuno-privilege being pushed by Tony Blair, who is itching for a VIP pass that gets his Davos-style globetrotting show back on the road? Boris Johnson is understood to have shelved plans for vaccine passports, recognising them as discriminatory and pointless (especially if restrictions would be abolished on 21 June). But if restrictions are to continue, the rationale for Blair’s scheme is revived. And there is huge momentum in Whitehall to salvage something out of Dido Harding’s failed test-and-trace App. Given the racial disparities on vaccine uptake (below) this would have deeply troubling implications.
What if ministers move the goalposts again and pursue a ‘circuit breaker’ for Indian variant cases — ignoring the low hospital numbers? It’s possible, but that would be a massive rupture: all previous lockdowns have been defended on the basis that hospitals would be overrun. There is nothing in the data to point to that and no talk about it even from Neil Ferguson and John Edmunds, who have been on the more pro-restriction wing of the Sage advisors.
And what about the misery for those who urgently need to revive their business, pub or restaurant? Can we justify the extra harm inflicted on society — even if less social people (like me) have their lives back to normal? What about spontaneity (Kate makes this case in a column for this week’s magazine). I take this seriously, but you have to weigh this up against the sheer pace of this new Covid variant, whose properties are still being diagnosed. It may be a more benign wave, spreading immunity more than clinical disease: we don’t know. And in two or three weeks, we will know more.
In his cover piece for this week’s magazine, Professor Philip Thomas reveals modelling suggesting the next wave may peak at anywhere between two and four million Covid cases — far bigger than in January. Importantly, his models also show hospital caseload peaking at now more than a quarter of the January deaths of about 8,000, lower than flu. Emphasis should be put on the word ‘model’, but there’s no doubt that this is a new development that was not apparent. Three weeks ago, I could see no reason why 21 June reopening should not go ahead, but the prospect of a third wave bigger than the first two (that seems plausible, even with the vaccination) has made me more cautious.
If the Prime Minister was still being pushed around like a ‘wonky shopping trolley’ by Sage advisers then I can see the cause for concern. Perhaps it comes down to whether you’re inclined to give him the benefit of the doubt. I’m assuming here that he is in control of the situation and that he has a reasonable grasp of the risks and trade-offs. A big assumption, I know.
This isn’t about going back into lockdown. The data shows we’re almost back to pre-pandemic levels for shopping, restaurants and many things: we’re just talking about certain mass events (weddings look set to be restored). The important thing is to shore up public confidence in the reopening.
The recovery is well underway now and would not be complete by any state-directed deadline. Many offices will not reconvene their workforces for months to come and many of the 3.4 million on furlough would still not come back. This is perhaps why I’ve stopped seeing 21 June as a ‘big bang’ for reopening: our recovery from Covid will, sadly, be a long process. And if waiting two more weeks would put more confidence behind that process, then I can see the logic. I’d put it no more strongly than that. Anyway, here’s our podcast discussion:-