Four months ago, when Boris Johnson’s government announced its plan to release England from lockdown, the Prime Minister vowed to be guided by “data, not dates”. In this respect at least, he has been true to his word.
The four-week postponement of the 21 June reopening – so-called Freedom Day – is a pragmatic response to the rapid spread of the Delta variant, which originated in India. The new strain, which now accounts for up to 96 per cent of Covid cases in the UK, is estimated to be 40 to 80 per cent more transmissible than the previously dominant Alpha (Kent) variant, which emerged before Christmas.
England’s remarkable vaccine roll-out, a model of mission-led, public-private innovation, has dramatically weakened the link between cases and hospitalisations, and indeed deaths. But it has not ended it. For the unvaccinated and those who have received only one jab, a significant threat remains. Hospitalisations have risen by 50 per cent across England and by 61 per cent in the north-west, with the less vaccinated under-65s now accounting for more than 70 per cent of admissions.
The government, which too often waited until the moment of maximum danger to act, has rightly delayed the reopening to save lives. But it need not have come to this. The rapid spread of the Delta variant was not an inevitability but the result of avoidable political failures.
[See also: Are new Covid variants more harmful to children?]
Ministers first learned that the new strain had been discovered on 1 April. This should have been a prompt for immediate action. Scientists such as Devi Sridhar, professor of global public health at the University of Edinburgh, had long warned that the greatest obstacle to full unlocking was the import of new variants from abroad.
But it was not until 23 April that the government finally added India to the “red list” of countries from which travel was strictly controlled. In the intervening period, at least 20,000 passengers who could have been infected with the Delta variant arrived in England from India. For a government that regularly pronounces its commitment to border control, this was a farcical policy.
One plausible explanation is Mr Johnson’s desire for a UK trade deal with India: he was scheduled to visit the country from 25 to 28 April. But lax border control has characterised the government’s Covid-19 response.
It was not until 8 June 2020 that arrivals were required to self-isolate for 14 days at an address provided and it was not until January 2021 that the government required travellers to test negative for Covid-19 before entering the UK. Hotel quarantine was not introduced until February, nearly a year later than in Australia, New Zealand and Taiwan.
During his appearance before MPs on 26 May, Dominic Cummings, Johnson’s former chief aide, remarked that the Prime Minister feared “the travel industry will all be destroyed if we bring in a serious border policy”. The UK’s careless approach to borders was a product of a persistent false divide between protecting public health and saving the economy. The forced postponement of the reopening – unaccompanied by any new business support – will further imperil the hospitality industry and, indeed, the travel industry.
The vulnerabilities exposed by the Delta variant extend beyond border control. The UK’s statutory sick pay of just £96.35 per week – the lowest rate in the OECD – and limited financial support for self-isolation, offers little incentive for workers to stay at home. The testing regime for travellers has been undermined by extortionate fees for PCR tests sent out by private healthcare companies and delayed or false results.
Were it not for its exceptional vaccine roll-out, the UK would be facing a yet worse third wave. As long as so much of the world remains unvaccinated – only 12 per cent of the global population has received at least one dose – the threat of new variants will endure. Mr Johnson has now pronounced 19 July the “terminus date” for the UK’s remaining lockdown restrictions. But it should also be the terminus for policies that too often invite disaster rather than repel it.
This article appears in the 16 Jun 2021 issue of the New Statesman, The Cold Web