Britain’s vaccines success has opened the way to shifting from state-led restrictions to personal responsibility in controlling coronavirus. The question — complicated by the explosion in the Delta variant — is when is the right moment. Boris Johnson’s government could have maintained progress towards that goal without lifting almost all restrictions on July 19, as it now plans to do in England. Instead, it is raising the risk that infections will again spiral out of control, requiring safeguards to be reimposed. More haste in relaxing rules may mean less speed in finally ending the pandemic.
Data suggest vaccines have substantially weakened the link between infections and hospitalisations or deaths. In the week to July 6, 186,422 people tested positive, but only 142 deaths were reported. Hospital admissions are about one-tenth of what they were when case numbers last rose this high.
By July 19, the government expects all adults to have been offered a first vaccine dose, with two-thirds double-jabbed; Public Health England figures suggest two doses of the AstraZeneca or BioNTech/Pfizer vaccines afford 90 per cent-plus protection against hospitalisation. But a preliminary study in Israel suggests two Pfizer jabs are only 64 per cent effective at preventing infections with the Delta variant.
Sajid Javid, the new health secretary, has conceded cases could reach 100,000 a day over the summer. That could provoke business disruption and a new surge in hospital admissions, albeit smaller than last winter. Debilitating “long” Covid cases could mushroom, with long-term impacts on the economy, the NHS and quality of life. Not for nothing are devolved governments in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland being rather more cautious.
Easing some rules is nonetheless justified. Self-isolation for double-jabbed individuals who are in contact with Covid cases no longer makes sense — except if they themselves test positive. Sending whole classroom bubbles home after a positive case has become counter-productive. Travel rules that unnecessarily restrict arrivals from relatively safe countries need a rethink.
But several principles should govern the government’s decision-making for England. A greater distinction should be drawn between areas where personal judgment is possible, and where not. Customers can choose whether to enter busy pubs or cinemas — but not, in many cases, whether to travel on public transport. Mask-wearing ought to remain compulsory in the latter. The severest risks should be avoided, and the affected sectors offered extended support; England can live without nightclubs for a few more weeks.
Greater reliance on individual responsibility should be balanced with proper information on risks, and what responsibility entails. The prime minister has warned against being “demob-happy” but should balance his celebrations of refound freedoms with appeals to continue the civic-mindedness that has defined the past 16 months. Businesses need clarity on their rights and obligations in the new environment when it comes to keeping their staff, and partners and customers, safe.
Finally, ministers should constantly learn lessons from elsewhere. Highly vaccinated Israel had to reintroduce compulsory mask-wearing indoors last month as cases jumped, 10 days after dropping it. New York City is becoming a model of how to emerge safely, with vigorous efforts to jab everyone over 12 and put air purifiers in all classrooms by September. The Johnson government’s vaccination effort is the one real success of a largely bungled virus response — the envy of some European neighbours. It should not squander it.