The mood music has changed. It seems that Step 4 – the lifting of the remaining legal restrictions – will no longer be happening on June 21st. Indeed, there are some advisors (mostly health professionals of some kind or other) who seem to think that these (social distancing, in particular) should continue indefinitely and for all sorts of reasons: to deal with flu, the backlog in cancer care, other respiratory diseases etc. Quite what sort of society or life they think this will mean for humans who are, par excellence, social beings is not explained. It’s like having the nerdy, spotty teenager who lives almost entirely in his bedroom decide that everyone else in the family should live like that too. Normally, this would be met with derision and a firm command to get washed, downstairs and showing some manners to Auntie Pamela who’s come for tea. We are not in normal times, alas. It is less the presence of Covid and more the apparent absence of any sort of courage and basic common-sense which makes this so.
What has led us here?
Vaccinations are the answer to Covid as Chris Whitty said in spring 2020. They are, even if no vaccine ever is – or ever can be – 100% effective. What they do allow, as every other vaccine has done, is for humans to live with a disease, not be felled by it. The vaccination programme is an indisputable success of this government but in recent weeks the rate has been too low. We should have been vaccinating as fast as possible, doing everything we could to increase the daily rate, to get as many people double-jabbed PDQ. Instead – after a good start – we became complacent. Or perhaps we faced inevitable (and foreseeable) supply constraints. Which leads us to the second mistake.
- Not controlling our borders.
We elected a government whose main purpose seemed to be to keep foreigners out and then, when foreigners really did need to be kept out, utterly failed to do so – despite warnings, despite seeing what the consequences would be if we didn’t, despite the risks. The one obvious advantage of having a “We Ourselves Alone” government was thrown away at precisely the time when such an approach was necessary. Of course, it is not possible to stop all travel. But as soon as it became clear that there was a new transmissible variant from the Indian sub-continent, much of it could have been stopped, quarantine could have been imposed more effectively. It would not have stopped the variant getting here but it would have slowed down its spread and allowed vaccines to stay ahead in the race. And it is a race. So why – inexplicably, negligently, stupidly – did we, in the middle of the race, allow the disease to catch up?
- The wrong message.
When the plan for getting out of lockdown was announced back in the spring, it was said that Zero Covid was not the aim. A welcome realism. Only one disease has been successfully eliminated from the world: smallpox. And that took centuries. So since Zero Covid is impossible, what the PM and every Minister should have been saying, ad nauseam at every opportunity from then until now, was something along these lines –
“We cannot eliminate Covid. What we can do is vaccinate everyone we can against it. We can develop treatments for it. We will put every effort into developing and improving vaccines and treatment for it and for those who cannot for medical reasons be vaccinated. Vaccines break the link between Covid and serious illness and death. They do not eliminate it. But we can – and have to – live with a milder form of the disease, just as we do with other diseases caused by viruses. So we cannot get into a funk because there are cases or variants or because people get ill or have to go into hospital. So long as we can cope. So our resources will be focused on making sure we can cope. Not on shutting down normal life. Because life is for living fully. We cannot live without risk. Nor can we eliminate it. We can try to minimise it and mitigate it. And each of us has to make our own assessment of what sort of life we want to live. But our society, our economy, our humanity demand that we live like normal people not scaredy cats. We cannot destroy our economy, our children’s futures and hopes, our freedoms and liberties because we are scared. So we need to learn to live with this disease. We can and must – and without continuing to sacrifice what we have temporarily sacrificed until now. So get vaccinated now!”
As baffling as the unwillingness to control borders, has been the fact that a government led by a former journalist has been so poor at effective communication. Yes – governments need to react to events but this should be within the context of an overall strategy. That strategy should be that Zero Covid is unachievable, the price for even trying is unacceptable, good health is a means to a good life, not the purpose of life, the NHS (valuable, hard-working and essential as it is) is not some Golden Calf to be worshipped, is not the fulcrum around which all public policy turns.
What we are getting instead is ill-informed micro-management, an unclear strategy, inconsistent application, the undermining of the vaccination programme (why bother if we don’t get back our freedoms), a government holding onto our freedoms (“It is incomprehensible that one of the most heavily vaccinated countries in the world is one that is most reluctant to give its citizens the freedoms those vaccinations should support.” – Mrs May crisply describing the absurdity of the government’s current stance), businesses crippled, many – out of desperation – playing loosey-goosey with the rules, people deciding for themselves what laws they will or will not obey and an unheeding insouciance about the cost of it all and who will pay.
It is a mess. It need not have been like this. It still need not. Time to speak some hard truths.