Easing restrictions remains a gamble for all the UK governments
You might think that things are finally going well in the UK in the fight against Covid-19. And, after a pretty awful 2020, so they are. Close to 25m vaccine doses have already been administered – more, proportionally than almost any other country on Earth; weekly case numbers are down by more than 90% from the peak, the weekly death toll is down by more than 85%, hospital admissions by almost as much and the number of patients in hospital by almost 80%.
Those are all very positive stats but the great majority of that work – as in Spring last year – has been done by the national lockdown/s, two months long and counting. The vaccination programme will have undoubtedly helped but even with almost all the most vulnerable having received a first dose, it’s worth remembering that although one dose provides substantial protection, around a quarter of those who would have become ill and died without the vaccines would still do so. In an open society, that’d mean several hundred, at least, dying every day. And it takes up to three weeks for the vaccines to be fully effective. Three weeks ago, fewer than 600,000 – 1% of the population – had received both doses.
All of which is why relaxing the Covid restrictions now – when case numbers are still around ten times the level they fell to last July and almost no-one of working- or school-age has received even a first dose – is a considerable gamble.
Yet the political pressure, and direction, is unsurprisingly all in favour of loosening things up. Lockdown has been hard for many: mentally, emotionally and financially. They want it to end and with the dramatic falls in the figures and the success of the vaccinations, feel that an end is more than justified; few are putting the opposite case just before major elections.
In reality, I can’t see why a return to the sort of restriction regimes that applied in December wouldn’t see case numbers rising again when so many of those interacting wouldn’t have had any vaccine. No doubt fewer, proportionately, would fall ill and fewer still would die compared with the pre-vaccine times but we only need to look across the Channel to see the risks. There, France and Italy are regularly recording more than 20,000 new cases per day, while several Central European countries are chalking up still higher rates, pro rata.
That said, apart from schools returning, lockdown remains largely in place. England and Wales are not planning on permitting the reopening of non-essential shops for another month, Scotland will be two weeks later still. By then, several million more should have received their first vaccine and the round of second doses should be far more advanced. Will that be enough to counter the easing of restrictions? Johnson consistently talked about “data not dates” but without hard thresholds, data can be selected to fit the political priority and once in the diary it will be very difficult to push the provisional dates back unless there really is a new outbreak.
So can the vaccination programme keep ahead of the regulations? There are around 51m people in the UK over the age of 20, of whom 9m are over 70. The key is not necessarily keeping R below 1 but keeping it close enough to 1 that any rise in infections doesn’t feed through to hospitalisations and deaths. Which in turn means having enough of the working-age population vaccinated to prevent spread running out of control even as life begins to return to normal, plus getting the vaccination effectiveness – two doses, both administered at least three weeks ago – among the most vulnerable up to maximum. If, for example, that means offering everyone over 40 one dose and those over 70 two doses, and assuming a take up above 90%, that means administering around 40m doses – or another 15m. At half a million a day (more than the current average but possible given daily maximums and the vaccine stockpile now apparently in place), that’d mean about a month or just in time for the England/Wales re-opening of non-essential shops and similar.
Good news? Well, not entirely. Firstly, that assumes a more rapid rate of rollout than’s been managed so far; secondly, it still leaves a lot of people (nearly all the under-40s) without even a first dose; and thirdly, most of the doses administered over the next month won’t yet have their full effect. Not to mention that the virus will have had opportunity to circulate in schools through this month.
Now, even if cases do rise, both the additional doses still being administered and the increasing effectiveness for those previously given, will continue to tip the scales towards the public and away from the virus. Even so, it seems to me that the timetable is, as has consistently marked the government’s attitude through this epidemic, running an optimistic but not unrealistic schedule. There is virtually no slack if vaccinations aren’t delivered at an even faster rate than has been achieved so far. That’s an almighty gamble when it could be the Union itself at stake.