Why remove all social distancing and facemasks?

Two people social distancing in a park
Photo by Dollar Gill on Unsplash

The number of Covid-19 infections has been increasing since the implementation of step 3 of the “roadmap out of lockdown” on 17 May. No other country with high vaccination rates has allowed the infection cases to rise so high. (see Table).

Covid-19 Vaccination and infection data on 8 July

The Prime Minister has a direct responsibility

Boris Johnson carries a direct responsibility for the rising infection numbers with an ineffective test and trace system, lack of financial support for self-isolation and continuous conflicting messaging. Furthermore, the spread of the Delta variant was facilitated by his delayed inclusion of India on the travel ‘red list’.

On 5 July we were told that all remaining Covid restrictions will be lifted on 19 July, and the “bonfire of Covid regulations” got bigger with the subsequent announcements that self-isolation will no longer be required for contacts of Covid cases, whilst school bubbles will be scrapped.

By the 12 July the Prime Minister’s statements had become increasingly contradictory. The wearing of face masks will no longer be an obligation, but we are urged to use them. Working from home is no longer expected, but it is better if we do not all go back to the office. The use of Covid passports for venues like nightclubs is desirable, but it will not be mandatory.

Herd immunity

We are going back to “herd immunity” acquired, at least in in part through another wave of infections, as a strategy to control Covid. Even if this was the right strategy, the epidemic modelling that informs government decisions suggests that a gradual lifting of restrictions over 3-5 months would be less likely to overwhelm the NHS.

Although one could see an advantage to the economy with a speedy full reopening of sport and other venues, this economic benefit is not a certainty. Rising infection numbers may reduce attendances and repeat regional or national lockdowns would be very damaging.

Covid-19 just loves the libertarian ideology

The removal of the legal obligation to wear face coverings in enclosed spaces is pointless: there are no economic upsides with this. The only justification is Boris Johnson’s libertarian ideology. Covid-19 just loves the libertarian ideology.

The figures

Israel suspended the mandatory use of face masks, only to reintroduce them ten days later when the daily number of Covid cases rose to above 100: we are scrapping face masks when the number of new cases in the UK is about to exceed 50,000.

Between 16 May and 29 June we have seen an 11-fold increase in the number of new infection but a lower 3-fold increase in the number of hospital admissions and deaths.

After 19 July, the number of Covid deaths may not escalate to the dramatic numbers we have seen before, but with hospital admissions we are not far from the numbers that would severely affect the NHS ability to cope with a record number of more than 5 million patients waiting for routine hospital treatment.

The government is anticipating the reintroduction of restrictions this winter in the face of a significant surge in hospital admissions. Winter, though, may come early.

With rising numbers of infections, the risk of escape variants (less controlled by vaccines) increases: it could then get much worse.

Last year it was thought that herd immunity could be achieved when 60-72% of the population had become immune. However, with the new variants immunity in 70-85% is required: this is difficult to achieve just with vaccines when 21% of the population below the age of 18 is not vaccinated and 10% of the adults decline vaccination, whilst only 60-88% of those vaccinated have full immunity.

We may not need to bear the impact of another large wave

However, the closer we get to herd immunity through vaccination, the more restrictions can be lifted without infection numbers soaring. Vaccination of adults is still underway, whilst vaccination of the 12–18 year-old cohort is under consideration and has already started in Israel and the US. The planned administration of a booster dose in autumn would also increase immunity. We may not need to bear the impact of another large wave of infections.

Sean O’Grady has argued that Boris Johnson’s defeatist policy would be like Churchill seeking peace terms with Hitler just after the D-day landings “because, y’know, people are fed up with the rationing … and they want the old days back” (The Independent 6 July).

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