The door had barely closed behind the disgraced Matt Hancock before his successor Sajid Javid began to change the tone on lifting Britain’s remaining lockdown restrictions. July 19 is still the “target date” for the final reopening postponed from June 21, the new health secretary told MPs this week. This would be the “start of an exciting new journey for our country”. Prime minister Boris Johnson insists that date is the “terminus”. For all the success of the vaccination effort, however, the alarming spread of the Delta variant is reason for prudence.
The bullish language is designed in part to placate Conservative backbenchers who have been restive since the four-week delay in “Step Four” of the government’s easing plan was announced. Javid has left room for manoeuvre, saying only that the final stage would “commence” on July 19. He did not specify if all restrictions would be lifted, or which. The talk in Westminster, though, is that Johnson is pushing for full reopening, on the assumption vaccinations will provide effective herd immunity. Hancock’s downfall removed a voice of caution.
The government is rightly anxious to shift from an approach based on restrictions to one of living with coronavirus as a managed threat, as with annual flu. Evidence is mounting that vaccinations have broken the link between infections and both deaths and hospitalisations. The seven-day average for daily confirmed coronavirus cases reached 19,296 on Wednesday. But hospital admissions are about a tenth of what they were when infections last rose to this level in December.
The super-infectious Delta variant must nonetheless affect the government’s calculus. Even with much reduced mortality rates, there is a difference between living with a virus that has been subdued to very low levels — as the government had hoped it would be by now — and one that is rampant. The government has brought forward its target of offering a first vaccination to every adult from the end of the month to July 19; the 62.3 per cent figure of UK adults already double-jabbed is expected to reach about 70 per cent by then. That will still leave a sizeable pool in which infections can spread. While vaccines provide strong protection against hospitalisations, they do not prevent all illness.
Left unchecked, mushrooming cases threaten to cause widespread absences from work — far more than in a typical flu season — hampering the recovery and potentially pushing back the time the economy takes to regain pre-Covid levels. Rising hospitalisations could still leave the NHS struggling, swelling the already vast healthcare backlog.
There are three priorities for the government’s approach. It should still be driven by data — and its now rapidly evolving interpretation — and not dogma. There is no argument as yet for reimposing restrictions already lifted. But some existing safeguards and guidance will probably need to remain after July 19, as the government is exploring.
Second, as much as supplies allow, health officials need to accelerate vaccinations, shrink the gap between doses and begin jabs for 12- to 18-year-olds, as the US has already done. The government should also even before the summer break replace isolation for entire school “bubbles” when a positive case is found with daily contact testing, as successfully piloted in some areas. This need not increase risks but will save many students from missing more school unnecessarily.
The vaccination effort has been the one big success of Britain’s virus handling. The government may yet need to let it run a little longer before removing the last lockdown restrictions.