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7 July 2021

Leader: Living with Covid

By treating mask-wearing as a choice, the government has revived the mixed messaging that has so often undermined public health.

By New Statesman

Like many other coronaviruses, Covid-19 has become endemic. The question is not whether we choose to live with the virus but how we choose to do so.

For the UK and other states, vaccines are the principal defence against the virus, which has killed as many as four million people worldwide (the unofficial figure is thought to be much higher). Britain’s roll-out, a model of mission-led, public-private innovation, has dramatically reduced deaths and hospitalisations. At the equivalent point in the second wave, more than 400 people were dying from Covid-19 each day, but daily deaths in this wave are now less than a tenth of that. Hospital admissions have fallen from nearly 2,000 a day last November to around 300 now.

The Johnson government is pursuing the unlocking plan that was delayed by the spread of the Delta variant, which originated in India. The reopening of parts of the economy that have been shuttered for 15 months, such as live music, is both justified and welcome. But other measures, such as the abandonment of mandatory mask-wearing on public transport and in shops, are dubious.

[See also: Boris Johnson’s new policy on masks prioritises simplicity over safety]

The threat of viral transmission is far higher indoors than outside and face coverings are a simple and effective means of protection. Just as smoking is banned or regulated in public areas to prevent the effects of passive smoking, so it makes sense for the state to limit the risk of mass infection. Although vaccines mean far fewer people will die or be hospitalised as a result of Covid-19, other risks remain: more transmissible or harmful new variants, as well as “long Covid” – the debilitating and enduring symptoms suffered by some.

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By treating mask-wearing as a choice rather than a civic duty, the government has revived the mixed messaging that undermined public health in the early weeks of the pandemic. Most voters know someone who has been ill with or died from Covid-19. They crave clear, consistent guidance; a YouGov poll found that 71 per cent believe face masks should continue to be mandatory on public transport and that 66 per cent believe they should be worn in shops. Boris Johnson purports to be a freedom loving libertarian but he is not averse to government intervention in other areas: his first act as mayor of London was to ban alcohol consumption on public transport.

Rather than trying to wish Covid-19 out of existence, the British state should respond pragmatically to the risks that remain. Borders should be carefully controlled to limit the spread of new variants. Had the government not equivocated for so long before adding India to the “red list” of countries from which travel is strictly controlled, the planned 21 June reopening might not have been delayed.

[See also: Why Boris Johnson’s unlocking plan is such a risk]

The increasing number who will be forced to self-isolate should be offered greater financial support as an insurance against lost business. Faced with the threat of a new flu epidemic this winter, sick pay should be increased from £96.35 a week (the lowest mandatory rate in the OECD) and employers should continue to encourage remote working.

The state will need to provide a permanent infrastructure of vaccines, tests and personal protective equipment, which will necessitate either higher government borrowing or higher taxes (as Chancellor Rishi Sunak has indicated by pledging to increase corporation tax from 19 per cent to 25 per cent).

National resilience, rather than openness to globalisation, will become the defining test of a country’s strength in this new era. Britain needs an active, strategic state and should not so readily allow the sale of essential firms such as Newport Wafer Fab – the country’s largest producer of silicon chips – to the highest bidder (in this instance the Chinese-owned Nexperia), as it did on 5 July.

By exposing the fragility of nation states in an interconnected age, the pandemic has accelerated change and forced a long overdue reckoning. As countries unlock, we should not disregard the lessons learned during the crisis. Covid-19 is not an aberration but a portent of the threats that will define this century. 

[See also: Why Covid-19 means it will still be impossible for the economy to return to “normal”]

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This article appears in the 07 Jul 2021 issue of the New Statesman, The baby bust