Denmark’s greatest philosopher, Søren Kirkegaard, experienced only one epidemic in his lifetime, the cholera outbreak of 1853, which occurred after Denmark foolishly lifted the coastal quarantine that had saved the country from Europe’s miserable 19th century cholera pandemics. Yet he aptly sensed our response to indeterminate lockdowns: ‘the most painful state of being is remembering the future, particularly the one you'll never have’.
Danes and Britons are keenly ‘remembering’ summer 2021 and are desperate for lockdown to be over. In a televised debate last week, Denmark’s Prime Minister Mette Fredriksen and opposition leader Jakob Ellemann-Jensen agreed ‘in principle’ that Denmark should reopen once all its over-50s have been fully vaccinated. Britain’s lockdown-fatigued subjects might well wonder: why doesn’t Boris Johnson make a similar statement? After all, at anticipated rates Britain will have vaccinated all its over-50s within two weeks. If the cautious Scandinavians can make such a bold promise, why can’t he?
One reason might be that Denmark’s PM has had far more pressure from her opposition than Boris Johnson has had from his. Ellemann-Jensen has said that ‘if our strategy is that Covid must not have any human consequences, then you stare blindly at it. Then the cure becomes more severe than the disease.’ He cites the fall in Danish cancer cases in 2020 as being the result of decreased cancer screening rather than some kind of miracle. The message is clear: lockdown is not cost-neutral.
In practice, though, Prime Minister Fredriksen is probably conceding little in stating that Denmark will reopen — and don’t forget her ‘in principle’ caveat — only once its over-50s are fully vaccinated. While Denmark has been vaccinating far more rapidly than most of Europe — 14.6 doses per 100,000 versus the EU average of 11.3 — Denmark’s last over-50 still won’t be fully vaccinated before early June, according to its government’s timetable.
That June date stands to slip if the AstraZeneca vaccine remains suspended — a paltry 1,400 Danes received their first jabs yesterday. Indeed, even if the AstraZeneca jab is reinstated, the damage caused by prior misinformation is done: a Danish GP friend reports multiple patients begging her to switch them to the Pfizer vaccine (she can’t, but they can choose not to show up).
In promising to reopen, Fredriksen’s calculus will be that Denmark has one of the lowest Covid infection rates in Europe — 3,700 per 100,000 versus 6,329 in the UK. The faster-spreading B.1.1.7 ‘British’ variant which is dominant in the UK is still only being found in 19 per cent of Danish cases. And she will be banking on a summer fall in Covid transmissions as Danes move their social lives to the garden and the beach — indeed, Denmark’s scientists have already detected ‘a touch of seasonal effect’ in reduced transmissions now the icy winter is over.
At present, most locked-down Brits are likely nearly as miserable as Kirkegaard, who claimed his depression was ‘the most faithful mistress I have ever known’. Sadly, Brits shouldn’t expect Boris Johnson or Sir Keir Starmer to immediately follow Denmark’s lead. The UK’s case rate is far higher, remains dominated by the faster-spreading ‘British’ variant, and this year’s cold spring weather is optimal for indoor Covid transmissions. Also, in making such a promise ‘in principle’, British politicians would be giving themselves only a couple of weeks to row back from it if needed — a potentially clumsy move.
Still, as summer approaches, politicians everywhere must feel like the hapless Mayor Vaughn in Jaws (whom Boris Johnson once favourably compared himself to) — pressurised to reopen the beaches at almost any cost. Danish and British politicians alike will be hoping vaccination will do the job of Spielberg’s Quint and Hooper.