The Guardian view on Boris Johnson's Covid plan: a risky bet on vaccines
Boris Johnson stood at the dispatch box on Monday with a plan to come out of a national lockdown. One might be forgiven for experiencing a sense of deja vu. Mr Johnson has been here twice before. This time was different. There were no jokes about ordering a pint to celebrate. It pays to be humble in the face of nature, a chastened prime minister acknowledged. With more than 120,000 Covid-19 deaths in the UK, it is about time that Mr Johnson was serious about coronavirus.
His decision to ease restrictions is a reflection of the belief in the apparent early success of the vaccines in reducing hospitalisations and deaths, and their rapid deployment. This has given him the confidence to rebuff calls from Tory MPs to lift the lockdown more quickly. Mr Johnson’s approach is to roll back restrictions in stages, starting with outdoor meetings, with a five-week wait between phases. If things go awry then, Mr Johnson says, further liberalisation can be put off.
The prime minister has devised a plan that gives him maximum flexibility. Mr Johnson says he is prepared to reverse the relaxation of measures should one of four thresholds be breached – but he has not specified these levels. His plan is more dates than data. Duncan Robertson at Loughborough University points out that in September last year, when government scientists on the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage) called for a circuit break, there were 20 people aged over 85 per 100,000 being admitted to hospital with Covid. When the last lockdown was announced, the comparable number was 297. Sage’s closest forecast to Mr Johnson’s bespoke scheme projects that the UK is likely to see a resurgence of the virus around September.
The protection afforded by the current vaccines, Mr Johnson told MPs, will by then have replaced the restrictions. If all goes well, the UK could be free of all restrictions by 21 June. By the end of July, every adult ought to have been offered a jab. This would be a very good outcome. But that seems a long way away. Mr Johnson’s logic is that cases of coronavirus will increase. But he hopes this will not translate into people needing treatment or rising Covid fatalities, and that the NHS will not be put under “unsustainable” pressure.
However, the more we allow infections to rise and the virus to replicate, the greater the chance that new variants will arrive that have the ability to dodge our current vaccines. The variant that’s dominating in South Africa – B1351 – has displayed such nightmarish attributes. We should therefore employ a very cautious approach, and Mr Johnson must think hard about whether his plan to reopen schools is wise. In a fortnight, all children in England will return to school. By contrast, the devolved administrations in Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland are much more cautious. It would surely be better not to allow an uncontrolled spread in younger people, even if more vulnerable and older adults have been vaccinated. A children’s vaccine won’t be ready for months, so the threat is a real one.
Without a test, trace and isolate system, it will be almost impossible to contain infections, especially if a variant emerges that is vaccine-resistant. The half-baked quarantine scheme is unlikely to prevent variants being imported from abroad. The government’s silence on preventing viral transmission in schools and offices is telling. Squashing a virus before it evolves to escape vaccines entirely is the best option. Mr Johnson is wagering that the current vaccines are a magic bullet, and that coronavirus becomes an endemic disease like the flu, which gives rise to large numbers of infections in winter, but is more bothersome than deadly. This is a gamble. Would it not be better to insure against the worst outcome by stamping out the virus with a zero-Covid strategy? The answer is surely yes, prime minister.