So that’s it, then. We never did send Covid packing. The struggle against this deadly invisible foe wasn’t won. We’re not going to strain every sinew to defeat Covid, after all. Boris Johnson is declaring surrender.
Instead of suppressing the virus to the point where it minimises the threat to health, an aim deliberately misrepresented as an unrealistic “zero Covid”, we’re accepting that we’re beat, that we’ll have to “learn to live with it”, much as we do with flu, and just expect to get sick – very sick, perhaps for a very long time – and perhaps die prematurely.
It’s not very Churchillian, is it? The prime minister is well known as an admirer of the old man, but instead of blood, sweat and tears shed, however heavy the burdens, however long the battle, we’re just shrugging and moving on because the Tories are bored with it now. Just at the moment when, in a matter of a couple of months, the vaccination programme will be as complete as it can be, and we might actually, for a change, have a rapid test-and-trace system in place – the best long-term protections.
Instead, the young are being told to achieve herd immunity through mass sickness. It is grabbing defeat from the jaws of victory. It is as if Winston Churchill decided to pack it in just after the D-Day landings, because, y’know, people are fed up with the rationing and doodlebugs and they want the old days back.
The new health secretary, Sajid Javid, says that we’ll be healthier as a result of abandoning most of the remaining restrictions and the rules on masks and social distancing.
The strains on non-Covid care on the NHS have been real, as has the upsurge in domestic violence and decline in mental health – and also the loss of schooling. Yet the “lockdown”, properly speaking, has been over for weeks, and we can go about most of our business perfectly freely (and probably too freely, given the exponential growth in infections).
At the moment, no one is under house arrest and there’s no need to go stir-crazy. To all intents and purposes freedom is already here, and can be made complete by the end of the autumn. The sectors still badly affected, such as travel and entertainment, can be supported until then. Soon the schools will break up. It is an ideal opportunity to “get vaccination done” and fix test-and-trace for good. Instead we’re rushing it, and relaxing prematurely. Again.
When should “freedom day” arrive? When it is safe and sustainable, and not before – when 85 per cent of the whole population have been vaccinated and we have herd immunity. That is what is meant by being driven by data, not arbitrary dates. Churchill didn’t put a date on ending the Second World War, and this struggle is the same – you win when you win.
The present level of double jab vaccination across the whole population is inadequate, because not enough young people have had a dose, and because society is rightly cautious about extending vaccination to children. It is true that children and younger people are less badly affected, but they will still get sick, and they will still spread the disease.
Vaccination, in any case, doesn’t always prevent severe infection. It has weakened the link with hospitalisation and death, but not eliminated it. Nor do vaccines prevent long Covid, and this is the greatest of threats to younger people, many of whom have only had one jab, or none. In due course, a coronavirus variant may emerge that attacks the young – and they currently have little or no defence. They, too, need personal protection now via vaccines and precautions such as masks, and from herd immunity.
Scaremongering? I think not. If we’d had a bit more “scaremongering” – ie realism – and a little less complacency over the past 16 months, we’d have locked down sooner and opened up later, and not lost thousands of lives needlessly (and recorded one of the worst death rates in Europe).
By its nature, it’s too early to assess long Covid, but it is certainly not a lot of hooey, as I saw one commentator suggest recently. Some 962,000 people in the UK reported long Covid symptoms (10 May-6 June, ONS), around 400,000 of them for more than a year. Those are self-reported – but if only a fraction were clinically diagnosed with chronic fatigue, shortness of breath, muscle ache and “brain fog”, it would be a major catastrophe.
Older people, women, people from poorer backgrounds, and those with comorbidities are the worst affected; and it is also now affecting largely undervaccinated younger people. They don’t die of Covid, but they may “live with it”, as the euphemism goes, for decades. How many will suffer life-changing disabilities and for how long we will soon discover. However many it is, it will be more than if we had waited just a little longer to get the vaccination programme done.
Is this what “living with Covid” means? For the likes of public health experts, it means vigilance, pushing back on the disease periodically with restrictions, even lockdowns – and keeping social distancing and masks and scanning for entry into venues. “Living with flu” means precautions and vaccinations with the purpose of minimising it. In contrast, we are not now going to try to minimise Covid – just put up with it.
But why not wear a mask on a bus or in a supermarket, when the Delta variant is so much more infectious? Or wave a smartphone on entry to a pub or football match? Wouldn’t we all rather that we and our fellow citizens bear a little inconvenience for a few more months, but also a fully functioning pair of lungs?
“Zero Covid” may now be beyond reach, but the aim of policy should be to protect life and health, to the maximum degree. The government has obviously decided not to do that, and it will be a disaster by Christmas – again – and into 2022, as the accelerated spread of the virus rips through communities. Such will be the sheer volume of the infections that long Covid and deaths will inevitably rise, as they have already. The coming wave may yet overwhelm the NHS and provoke more panicky late lockdowns – with yet more economic damage.
The government is about to needlessly condemn thousands more of the younger generation to long Covid, a potentially life-long disability. The bodies will indeed “pile up” as Johnson once remarked because he understands the consequences. As ever he is taking a gamble with other people’s lives.
None of that looks like a solid basis for asking the electorate for another term in office. The pandemic isn’t going to end on 19 July, and nor will the deaths from Covid, and nor will the government’s troubles. They should never be forgiven.