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26 November 2021

Whisper it, but it looks like the UK got it right on Covid unlocking after all

By allowing it to spread in warmer months, Britain seems to have found a way of coping with it.

By Mark Littlewood

We may never know which country performed best in the war on Covid. But as the UK reacts to the new mutated “Nu” variant discovered in southern Africa, it is worth keeping in mind that we are in a far better place than many of our European neighbours. We cannot declare total victory over the coronavirus – it will continue to cause widespread illness and claim still more lives, and the risk of mutations remains while the global vaccine rollout continues – but by allowing it to spread in warmer months, Britain seems to have found a way of coping with the virus.

Earlier this week, former vaccines minister Nadhim Zahawi suggested the UK could be the first to go “from pandemic to endemic”. If he’s right, exponential growth will soon be a horror of the past – but Covid will emerge repeatedly like seasonal flu. Over the decades to come, we know that Covid-19 could lead to many more hospitalisations and deaths, but we will not upend our entire society and economy as we have done continuously over the past 18 months. 

Though no one could have been certain of the outcome at the time, the way events have played out suggests that pressing ahead with Freedom Day in July – albeit four weeks later than originally intended – proved to be the right call. (It’s possible sticking to the original June date may have been better still.) But the situation on the continent is rather different. Other European countries are only now beginning to face their first major wave of the Delta variant, whereas the UK went some way towards clearing this hurdle in the summer – building an immunity now complemented by 12 million booster shots. 

Video by Valeria Cardi

It is worth recounting that this was, ultimately, a political decision. An unhelpful feature of debate across the Western world has been the extent to which it is assumed that “the science” – note the definite article – paints a clear and unambiguous pathway to sensible policymaking. It is not to disparage experts simply to point out that they often disagree – sometimes virulently – and frequently are operating with enormous margins of error. The 100 or so scientists and medics who wrote to the Lancet in July calling the ending of lockdown “a dangerous and unethical experiment” were, it turned out, wide of the mark – however informed and well-intentioned their advice was at the time. 

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The Netherlands entered partial lockdown last weekend, with restrictions set to last three weeks. These include the closure of bars, restaurants and essential shops from 8pm, and non-essential retail and services, such as hairdressers, shutting at 6pm. Austria followed suit on Monday (22 November), imposing its fourth national lockdown and rolling out a compulsory vaccine programme from next February. Belgium has effectively made working from home close to mandatory, and “lockdown light” has just been imposed. 

This growing wave of restrictive measures in other European countries represents not just an inability to shake the pre-vaccine 2020 mindset but a failure of public policy. 

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First, politicians have fallen into the age-old trap of a man with a hammer seeing every problem as a nail. Curtailing human interaction will indeed stem the transmission of the virus, but really this is just a means of buying time. Even dyed-in-the-wool libertarians could see a prima facie case for restrictions when seeking to provide a window of opportunity both to discover a vaccine and then roll it out. 

Once vaccinated, the prospect of dying from Covid-19 is similar to seasonal flu. Around 85 per cent of Dutch citizens have been vaccinated – and the numbers in Belgium are higher still. If everyone has been offered a vaccine – and encouraged to get one – responsibility surely shifts to those who haven’t been jabbed rather than vast majority who have. 

Second, politicians are often poor judges of “seen” vs “unseen” consequences of policy interventions. Trade-offs need be made, but if the overwhelming pressure is to simply try and force down Covid infection numbers and deaths, a meaningful cost-benefit analysis can be overlooked. This isn’t just a matter of weighing health concerns against economic considerations, though these matter – major hits to GDP can be assumed to lead to deteriorating health overall. It’s the toll on mental health from lockdowns and on physical health more generally – potentially enormous costs of lockdowns that are dispersed and may be difficult to properly audit. They’re no less real simply because they don’t appear on bar graphs on the TV news each evening, but they do weigh less heavily in day-to-day political combat.

Third, in so far as the cavalry is going to arrive, it’s already here. There will be a continual drive to improve and modify the vaccines to cope with emerging variants – such as the Nu variant that has caused such concern in recent days – but that essentially mirrors our ongoing yearly battle with influenza. 

No country has handled Covid-19 perfectly. An international crisis unfolding in real time has made it impossible to quickly draw lessons of best practice from other jurisdictions. Even someone sympathetic to pressures and confusions faced by our own government cannot deny that some truly dreadful decisions were made.

But 18 months into this battle, in the here and now, the UK seems far closer to a return to normality than many countries across the Channel. That’s nothing to crow about – we need Europe to get back on its feet as soon as possible. But our performance might just mean that those of us on these islands are, in 2021, finally going to enjoy some festive cheer.

[See also: Why the thought of another lockdown is so terrifying]

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