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24 February 2021updated 17 Sep 2021 11:34am

Leader: Britain unlocks

The plan for ending lockdown shows the UK government is learning from its mistakes, but threats and weaknesses in the fight against Covid-19 remain.

By New Statesman

The plan to release the United Kingdom from lockdown, announced by Boris Johnson on 22 February, was more cautious and measured than its predecessors. As if atoning for his past hubris, the Prime Minister vowed to be guided by “data, not dates”. There were no false promises or boosterish pronouncements. The sombre tone matched the mood of the country.

Ministers have rightly prioritised the reopening of all schools in England on 8 March, while the phased return of pupils in Scotland and Wales has already begun. Lockdowns are disastrous for child well-being and widen pre-existing educational inequalities.

But further unlocking will depend upon four tests: that the vaccine programme continues to progress well; that evidence shows vaccines are effective at reducing hospitalisations and deaths; that infection rates do not threaten to overwhelm the NHS; and that the balance of risks is not fundamentally changed by new Covid-19 variants.

[See also: Boris Johnson’s great gamble]

The term “world-beating” has often been abused by ministers during the pandemic. Yet in the case of the UK’s vaccine programme it is genuinely merited. Only four other countries – Israel, Serbia, the United Arab Emirates and Chile – have administered more doses per 100 people than the UK. The vaccine programme has shown the virtues of an active state, which can nurture public-private innovation, and of national companies such as AstraZeneca (which defeated a takeover bid by Pfizer in 2014).

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That the EU has dismally failed to match this performance – with 0.16 vaccine doses per 100 people, compared to the UK’s 0.53 – is concerning enough. The longer Covid-19 persists in Europe, the greater the risk of new variants being imported into Britain. But that the French president, Emmanuel Macron, and the German media responded by casting doubt on the efficacy of the Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccine – leading to reduced take-up among European citizens and in countries such as South Africa – is a matter of shame. Early data from Scotland suggests the Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccine can reduce a person’s risk of hospitalisation by as much as 94 per cent.

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[See also: The biggest critics of Boris Johnson’s lockdown roadmap are on his own side]

Vaccines are cause for hope, rather than complacency. Two-thirds of UK adults have yet to receive one dose and scientists fear that immunity may fade over time. There is still the threat that new strains could spread and be resistant to current vaccines.

For this reason, the government’s quarantine policy – which excludes dozens of countries where cases of the South African and Brazilian variants have been found – should be tightened. As states such as New Zealand and Taiwan have shown, border controls are the compromise for restoring normality at home. The UK must ensure that its NHS Test and Trace programme – which has proved far from world-beating – is able to identify and counter new outbreaks swiftly.

Even if something approaching normality resumes this summer, the scars inflicted by the pandemic will endure for many years. A significant number of patients who survived the disease are suffering the debilitating symptoms of Long Covid, while most children have lost almost a year of normal schooling. Unemployment has reached its highest level since 2016 (5.1 per cent), with 726,000 redundancies since the pandemic began. Valuable businesses and livelihoods have been destroyed. Calls to mental health helplines and prescriptions for antidepressants have reached record levels. Faced with these social ills, the state must act to support and serve its citizens.

[See also: Why Boris Johnson must now announce a public inquiry into the UK’s Covid-19 catastrophe]

The success of the UK’s vaccine roll-out – which has proved a triumph for the NHS – has shown the benefits of early and decisive intervention, of the kind the Johnson administration failed to demonstrate at the outset of the pandemic. As the government contemplates the threats that remain and the recovery to come, it must not disregard this lesson. 

This article appears in the 24 Feb 2021 issue of the New Statesman, Britain unlocks