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The rollout of the vaccine in Britain has seemingly sprung the lock that kept the public indoors during the past pandemic year. For many this is a cause for celebration. Some may have paused, however, and wondered why many scientists appeared reluctant, as coronavirus restrictions eased, to take advantage of the new freedoms. For these experts, the risks are just not worth it. Indoor mixing, potentially with lots of different people, allows for circumstances fraught with danger in a viral pandemic.
The situation is made much more tricky by the emergence of the fast-spreading B.1.617.2 variant of Covid-19, first identified in India. Cases of this “variant of concern” are doubling every week and it is taking hold in different parts of the country. It opens up the question whether the government’s criteria for moving ahead with its road map for “opening up” has been met.
Matt Hancock, the health secretary, told MPs on Monday that the new variant is more transmissible but could be contained: by increasing the rate at which the second vaccine jab is administered and using surge testing to contain local outbreaks. This sounds like the stable door being shut after the horse has bolted. In a paper released last Friday the government’s Scientific Advisory Group on Emergencies (Sage) warned that the growth of the variant was so fast that “at this point in the vaccine roll out, there are still too few adults vaccinated to prevent a significant resurgence”.
Sage’s modelling considered relaxing restrictions in the manner that occurred on Monday before Mr Hancock’s new measures. It looked at a B.1.617.2 variant that is more than 40% more transmissible than the previously dominant strain, but that engendered no more severe reaction. This, said Sage, would lead to the NHS in August coming under the same stress it did in January this year. Ministers would have no choice but to reimpose a disruptive lockdown.
Boris Johnson decided to ease restrictions without a sure grasp of the facts. His choices depend not just on emerging data, but also on the probability of different outcomes. That may explain why on Sunday he warned the public to take the next step “with a heavy dose of caution”. In the view of many experts, Mr Johnson has failed to take decisions that might have saved more lives.
These are issues of ethics and politics as much as science. Mr Johnson may be laying the groundwork for a blame game in which sections of the public will be held responsible for any delay in completely lifting the lockdown in June. If that is Mr Johnson’s intent then he ought to be disabused of such a notion. India was not put on the government’s travel-ban “red list” until two weeks after neighbouring Pakistan and Bangladesh despite having a seemingly higher prevalence of Covid infections. The suspicion is that Mr Johnson put his political wish for a big post-Brexit trade deal with India, sealed by a planned visit, ahead of the safety of the British people.
The public mood is for ministers to provide an account of decisions made. Mr Johnson would not have conceded a coronavirus public inquiry if this were not the case. It would be better for Mr Johnson to level with people if things are not going to plan. The public need to be prepared for the road out of Covid potentially being longer and harder than anyone could have wished.
Source: The Guardian
Keyword: The Guardian view on Covid ethics: easier to enter lockdown than leave it | Editorial