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22 February 2021updated 23 Feb 2021 8:02am

Why new Covid-19 variants are the biggest threat to Boris Johnson’s lockdown roadmap

A slower unlocking than last time makes sense until everyone in Britain has been offered a vaccine.

By Stephen Bush

Boris Johnson will today unveil a slow, month-by-month four-step path out of lockdown in England, and along with it the four tests that the UK government is using to judge the speed and scale of the unlocking.

The month-by-month approach makes a lot of sense because it allows the government to gauge what exactly is increasing the viral risk, and shows ministers have learnt some of the lessons of the summer. But given everything we know about how coronavirus spreads and how much safer it is to be outdoors than indoors, it is hard to defend the slow and draconian pace of outdoor unlocking: which seem to be based on little more than the conviction that the average British person is too daft to understand the basic message that the outdoors is very safe and the indoors is very dangerous. (It doesn’t help, of course, that government messaging on hand-washing and deep cleaning, while good public hygiene, is next to useless as far as the spread of coronavirus is concerned.)

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Those four tests? That the vaccination programme continues to progress, that vaccines are effective at bringing down deaths and hospitalisations, that cases are not going to overwhelm the NHS, and that new variants do not change the government’s calculation over the risks of reopening. 

Now, the vaccination programme is currently proceeding at a fantastic pace, but it is possible that some unforeseen event such as a trade war slows the pace of new doses. So it makes sense to include this test, even though at present we are passing it with flying colours. 

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The data on Pfizer from Israel continues to be very positive, and research from Public Health Scotland shows even better performance by the AstraZeneca vaccine. But again, this is a useful variable for the government to keep an eye on. 

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As, too, is NHS capacity. Remember that, for all that there is much to criticise about the advice given by British public health experts last spring and the decisions taken by ministers in the summer and winter of 2020, we have never experienced a freely circulating virus alongside a functioning vaccine. We don’t know what that would mean for healthcare capacity because we have  never experienced it. 

But what about the risk of new variants? This last one is a bit of a weasel phrase: there is always a risk of new variants. The risk is heightened because if it occurs midway through our vaccine rollout, the chances are higher that those new variants will be vaccine-resistant, and we will end up in another lockdown waiting for a new set of vaccines. (Christina Pagel explains all this well on the IfG podcast if you can get through my nasal droning first) 

A tighter lockdown until everyone in Britain has been offered a vaccine therefore makes sense – but if that’s the government’s new plan, Johnson needs to be explicit about what that means, rather than hiding behind vague language about new variants and risk.