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Boris Johnson needs to be honest: “living with Covid” does not mean normality

Dogmatic adherence to a libertarian purity test could make the reopening more painful than it needs to be. 

By David Gauke

One phrase we have heard many times from ministers in recent weeks is that “we are going to have to learn to live with Covid”. They are quite right to make that point. We are not going to eliminate this virus nor can we put life on hold until we have reduced the daily number of deaths to a tiny number.

But there has been a tendency to take this to read that “living with Covid” means the same as “living life exactly as it was lived pre-Covid” – and that, sadly, is not the case. At least, not yet.

The recent increases in cases, hospitalisations and deaths are concerning, but the government does have a reasonable case for proceeding – albeit gingerly – to the next step in the unlocking programme. 

It could seek to suppress the current wave, but to do so it would have to impose additional restrictions, not just maintain the status quo. Proponents of this view argue that this gives us more time to vaccinate more people. This was a persuasive argument for delaying the next stage of unlocking from 21 June to 19 July when the number of first doses being administered was 176,000 a day (as in early June), but that number is now around 70,000 and falling. The modelling suggests that vaccinations alone, even if extended to 12-17-year-olds, will not be enough to get us to herd immunity.

At some point, restrictions will have to be lifted and cases will increase further. There is a trade-off between seasonality and increased vaccine coverage but, at current rates, the additional vaccine coverage will not be that substantial in the autumn. An autumn reopening would still involve the risk of a substantial wave of infections at a point when the weather means respiratory diseases are likely to be more transmissible, and even more harmful.

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The other argument for proceeding with easing the lockdown is that vaccines have fundamentally changed the scale of risk to human life. Lockdowns cause great harm – damaging mental health, increasing isolation and loneliness, depriving children of educational opportunities, destroying livelihoods – but without them we would have seen tens of thousands, maybe hundreds of thousands, more deaths. The lockdown sceptics have proven to be wrong time and time again but, as the vulnerable become vaccinated, the potential damage done by Covid is reduced. There does come a point where the cost of a lockdown is too high given the lives saved.

[see also: Leader: Living with Covid]

The government’s position would be more credible, however, if it had not given the impression that, rather than policy being driven by careful consideration of the costs and benefits of each aspect of the restrictions, it has been impatient to announce Covid has been defeated. The government clearly wanted to declare “freedom day”, let the bells ring, and move irreversibly out of the darkness and into the light. As is now belatedly being realised, the lifting of the remaining restrictions has to be a process, not an event.

Take the issue of masks. They are an inconvenient irritant but the harm done by them is minimal compared to the health benefits. A couple of weeks ago, discarding our masks was clearly supposed to be a symbolic act of liberation as cabinet ministers boasted that they would not be wearing them in future. After a few days of reflection, the position is now that people should wear a mask in enclosed spaces, but this is now guidance not a legal requirement (unless, in the context of public transport, a mayor makes it a condition of carriage). It is a mess.

Nightclubs is another example. The experience of the Netherlands is that nightclubs – crowded, badly ventilated space, with lots of shouting and full of unvaccinated young people – are ideal venues for the spread of the virus. There is an obvious case for keeping them closed, but the government wants to announce a good news story of removing all restrictions – with no exceptions.

The alternative approach would be to make the case for and implement a proper vaccine passport system, but the very suggestion provokes an outcry. There are fulminations about “Big Brother” rather than a pragmatic recognition that this would allow people to do more things safely sooner than would otherwise be the case.

As for the criticism that vaccine passports discriminate against the unvaccinated, why shouldn’t we discriminate in favour of those who are much less of a risk of spreading the virus? In any event, restoring rights specifically to the vaccinated would have the welcome consequence of many more people getting jabbed, if the behaviour of the French is any guide.

The problem is that an influential body of opinion within the Conservative Parliamentary Party and the right-of-centre media believe that any requirement to change behaviour as a consequence of Covid is now an intolerable attack on our liberties. The Prime Minister, often susceptible to giving his base what they want, raised expectations that we would be free from all restrictions on 19 July, delivering a theatrical moment of closure. In the face of rising case numbers, he has changed tone. This is sufficient to provoke complaints from his natural supporters, but may be insufficient to prevent an unnecessarily high surge in cases. 

We are going to have to live with Covid, but doing so will mean maintaining low cost but high benefit restrictions. Dogmatic adherence to some kind of libertarian purity test could make the next few months much more painful than necessary.

[see also: The decision to unlock on 19 July is the biggest gamble Boris Johnson has taken so far]