We all look forward to a return to normality. However, the Prime Minister’s decision to lift the few remaining Covid restrictions is premature and dictated by expediency rather than reality.
The number of Covid hospital admissions is still high (more than 1,000 per day) and this contributes to the NHS crisis and the long waiting lists.
Some of the control measures which were necessary earlier in the pandemic, such as lockdowns or the closure of schools, had a significant impact on the economy and the education of children. However, the recently lifted restrictions, such as the wearing of face masks in enclosed spaces and self-isolation when infected with Covid, have minimal or no consequences.
Covid press conference
The Covid press conference on 21 February was disconcerting. On the one one hand Boris Johnson enthused about the return to normality and the full restoration of our liberties. On the other hand, the Chief Medical Officer and the Chief Scientific Adviser warned that the Omicron wave is still high.
Chris Whitty and Patrick Vallance acknowledged that face masks and self-isolation have played an important role in containing Omicron. Their “public health advice” is that we continue with these two control measures, even if they are no longer mandated by law.
The problem is that many people only pay attention to the headlines, announcing no need to self-isolate or wear masks, rather than the details.
We all know that public health advice on any matter (do not smoke, drink less, eat healthily) always fails unless it is underpinned by public health policies and legislation. Usually, it is the well-off or the well-educated who can take notice of public health advice.
Thus, Covid will continue to do what it has done so far. As Patrick Vallance put it during the conference, “this virus feeds off inequality and drives inequality”.
So, is our Prime Minister suffering from a dissociative disorder that disconnects him from the advisers around him? I don’t think so. A number of commentators have suggested that the early lifting of these restrictions is a distraction from Partygate and an attempt to appease those Conservative MPs who had showed dissatisfaction with the PM.
What will be the consequences of lifting all restrictions? Some have warned we could see a sharp rise in cases. I do not think this is likely in the short term but, when a new variant emerges, it will spread more quickly.
A more immediate consequence is that the current steep decline in hospital admission may plateau and we end-up with a long tail that hampers the NHS recovery. The smart way to live with Covid is to flatten the curve of hospital admissions before removing the last control measures.
Vaccination rates and Covid passes
Boris Johnson often brags about the success of the vaccination campaign, based on faster delivery in the early phases when the vaccine supply was limited. However, we no longer have the highest vaccination rates in Europe (see Table). Our lower vaccination rates reflect the delay in vaccinating the 5 to 11 year olds, as well as Boris Johnson’s freedom-loving rhetoric.
A number of European countries have used Covid passes (based on vaccination or a recent infection) as a requirement to attend a certain venues and this appears to have boosted the vaccination rate in some countries. This approach was anathema to the libertarian wing of the Conservative party.
Our lower vaccination rate does not matter now, as we have so much more additional immunity as a result of large-scale infection with Omicron. However, immunity wanes with time and having a high vaccination rate with future vaccine boosters could make a difference next winter.
At the press conference on 21 February Patrick Vallance suggested that a wise man celebrates when the sun is shining but keeps his umbrella. It seems to me that Boris Johnson has bartered his umbrella for a freedom-loving speech.