“If not now, when?” That’s the justification that Boris Johnson has used for the end of England’s lockdown. It’s a question with a superficially easy answer: “the autumn, when everyone aged 18 and over has had the opportunity to be double-jabbed”.
[Hear more on the New Statesman podcast]
But there is a cost to waiting, too, albeit one that is largely government-inflicted. While vaccines provide a high degree of protection from infection, onward transmission and severe illness (that is to say, if you are vaccinated, you’re less likely to get Covid-19, less likely to give it to other people and less likely to be gravely ill if you do get it) they do not provide absolute protection. Some people will still get coronavirus and some people who do get it will get gravely ill, and some of those people will die.
The ensuing problem is that the NHS is already under great strain in the winter months, in part because of the consequences of government spending cuts and in part because of various seasonal factors. If your exit wave coincides with the winter, you’re more likely to have serious issues across your healthcare system and many more deaths as a result.
But the problem is that, though the government can control when it eases restrictions, it can’t truly control what people do with those freedoms and when. It’s possible that England’s “exit wave” (which will likely be larger because of when lockdown ended) will, far from missing the NHS’s winter crisis, end up colliding with it. Part of the problem is that the government is spending too much time thinking about things it can’t really control (when the exit wave peaks) and not enough on things it can, such as letting people make their own choice about the AstraZeneca vaccine, ordering more vaccines for booster shots, maintaining mandatory mask and driving efforts to vaccinate around the world and thereby reduce the risk of new variants.