In the coronavirus culture wars, as in all politics, the extremes have converged. In keeping with the horseshoe theory there are only two groups left who seriously believe there will be another lockdown. One is the shabby gaggle of “lockdown sceptics” and anti-vaxxers who think permanent lockdowns are the end goal of the New World Order. The other is the assortment of Zero Covid fanatics who will not leave the house until toddlers have received their third jab.
Neither faction can drag themselves out of 2020. Neither can accept that history is not repeating itself.
Last autumn, the “sceptics” were convinced that the pandemic had come and gone. This time, they think the worst is yet to come. Despite the summer surge, they are sure that Covid-19 is a strictly seasonal virus. The Zero Covidians, meanwhile, also foresee a winter catastrophe. Last autumn, they wanted a lockdown to prevent a lockdown. This time, they want Plan B to prevent a lockdown.
Devi Sridhar, the doyenne of Zero Covid, told the New Statesman last October: “The longer we delay the decision to go into lockdown, the longer it is going to last.” Now she is saying that if the government doesn’t introduce vaccine passports and mandatory mask-wearing, “we will be pushed into a Plan C this winter that will look a lot like lockdown.” To be clear, Sridhar says in her most recent New Statesman interview that “lockdown happens when the NHS is basically collapsing”, so it looks like she believes the NHS is going to collapse despite all the vaccinations and booster shots.
“Waiting and watching just doesn’t work with Covid,” she says, “as we have learned repeatedly over the past 22 months.” But are the last ten months really comparable with the 12 before them? Cases are falling in England and this is the fifth time they have been on a downward trajectory since “Freedom Day” in July. This didn’t happen without lockdowns last year. Moreover, the number of new cases is lower than it was on Freedom Day. If the government didn’t go to Plan B in July, why should it go there now?
One answer is hospital capacity, but while the number of people with Covid in English hospitals has risen from around 5,000 at the end of July to 7,000 today, it is a far cry from the 14,000 last November, let alone the peak of 34,000 recorded in January. A quarter of these people are not even being primarily treated for Covid-19 and there are fewer people with Covid in mechanical ventilation beds than there were at the end of August. It is almost certain that the NHS will be in crisis this winter, as it is every year, but it will not be the public’s fault. We cannot make a habit of staying home to protect the NHS.
It is true that if the recent rise in hospitalisations continues throughout the winter, Covid will put the NHS under intolerable pressure. But there is no reason to think it will. Chris Whitty, the Chief Medical Officer, is fond of saying that epidemics are either doubling or halving. Since July, Covid in the UK has done neither. Rates have gone up and down in defiance of Sage's projections, for reasons that nobody fully understands. The logical conclusion to be drawn from Whitty’s motto is that we no longer have an epidemic – rather, we have an endemic virus that everybody will catch sooner or later, possibly more than once. If the summer and autumn surges help to “flatten the curve” over winter, we may look back on them as a blessing in disguise.
The logic of exponential growth served modellers well last year, but immunity delivered by vaccines and infection have made mathematical formulas redundant. The phrase “if current trends continue” is a red flag in economic forecasting and should be treated with the same scepticism in Covid modelling. We need to get away from the 2020 mentality of assuming that a rise in cases will continue inexorably, just as we should not expect a fall in cases to continue for weeks on end, as previous declines did under lockdown.
Those who support vaccine passports and mandatory masks should argue for them on their own terms rather than threaten us with implausible lockdowns if we don’t adopt them. The case is not particularly strong for either. Two weeks ago, when the clamour for Plan B was at its zenith, Europe was held up as an example of what could be achieved with “modest” restrictions. “Germany is managing to control its Covid epidemic and bring down the numbers of cases”, wrote Devi Sridhar in the Guardian as she applauded the country’s cancelling of Oktoberfest, its vast number of testing centres (“literally at every corner”) and its mask mandates (“not cloth masks. Only surgical or FFP2 medical grade masks are permitted.”)
In the last fortnight, however, new cases in Germany have doubled and are now close to January's levels. Since the start of last month the number of cases has almost doubled in Ireland and Greece, more than doubled in Austria and Belgium, and quadrupled in the Netherlands. Case numbers are soaring in most of Eastern Europe, where vaccine uptake has been poor. Despite doing much less testing, the European Union has recorded more Covid deaths than the UK (per capita) for the last two weeks, and the gap is widening.
In England, one in 50 people have Covid-19. In Wales, where masks remain mandatory, one in 40 people have it. If you prefer cherry-picking in the opposite direction you might note that masks are also mandatory in Scotland where the rate is only one in 75. You pays your money and takes your choice, but it is difficult to point to a clear impact from mandatory mask laws on the overall infection rate in the UK or any other country. It is certainly difficult to imagine either mandatory masks or vaccine passports turning a rising tide of cases into a decline (although they would doubtless be getting the credit for the recent drop in the infection rate had they been introduced two weeks ago).
That’s the thing about the measures in Plan B. With a highly infectious virus and a “leaky” vaccine, they are too lightweight to bring about the lockdown-style collapse in case numbers that its advocates desire. Nor are they a trivial restriction on freedom, as the Zero Covidians claim. If it were not for lockdowns, they would be the biggest infringement of civil liberties since the Second World War. That is why they keep talking about lockdowns. It’s a good cop, bad cop routine.