Boris Johnson is an optimist – a feature that has not always served him well throughout this pandemic.
The litany of slipping timelines in 2020, from school openings to the First World War ‘over by Christmas’ tribute act, hasn’t given the public great confidence in Government announcements.
But, with a vaccine being rolled out at a pace that nobody thought possible, one would imagine Boris et al would be finally able to enjoy a success story. After all, as the PM, the Health Secretary and myriad members of the Cabinet have said, the vaccine is the ‘way out’ of this crisis.
So why are the PM and various members of his team now undermining that very argument with speculation about lateral flow tests in nightclub car parks, and with briefings that we won’t be hugging until Christmas?
Let’s attempt to agree on a few facts that are relevant to Britain’s exit from lockdown.
The first is that 90 per cent of deaths from Covid-19 have been amongst the 65-plus age group. Some 99 per cent have been amongst those aged 44 and above.
The second comes from Israel, where death rates and hospitalisation are cratering amongst the elderly – now vaccinated, they are no longer getting seriously ill. Out of a real-world study of half a million vaccinated Israelis, only just over 500 have contracted Covid-19, and only four of those classed as a serious case. Nobody has died. There are, as Chris Whitty said Monday, early signs that similar is happening here.
The third is that the Government and the scientific brains of Britain are all in agreement that our medicines regulator is a highly effective one, that the decision to focus on a higher level of first doses as a priority has been endorsed by the World Health Organisation, and that – as a result – the vaccine is effective in stopping both the transmission of Covid-19 and in mitigating its worst impacts.
If all these three things are true, then the simple fact is that life can and should return to all-but-normality once the majority of those over the age of 60 – but let’s say 44 for the sake of caution – have had the jab.
If people stop getting seriously ill from Covid-19, there is no argument to maintain lockdown restrictions of any stripe for longer than absolutely necessary, considering the impact of lockdowns on all other parts of our lives – economic, social, and yes, physical health too.
The Government has a success story to sing about. It procured vaccines faster than just about anybody else and it is putting them in the arms of people who need them, again, just about faster than anywhere else in the world.
Not only does airy-fairy speculation about lateral flow tests distract from that message, but it risks undermining the overall strategy itself.
In saying you’ll still need to have a cotton bud shoved up your nose to get into the theatre, then vaccine-sceptics – and, frankly, the busy – might simply say they can’t be bothered to get it, and that they’re unlikely to get seriously ill. This may be stupid, or selfish, but people do stupid and selfish things all the time.
What else might we have to be tested for? Going into work? Going to a shopping centre? The football?
Follow the logic: if the vaccine is effective, why do we still need widespread testing? You can forgive people for being confused.
Vaccine-led strategies work by ensuring that enough people get them. We already know there are some groups and populations that are lagging in their enthusiasm for being poked in the arm. The last thing the Government needs to do is argue that it won’t be enough.
At the heart of the Government’s dilemma is that it still hasn’t got a strategy for life after vaccination.
Initially the plan was to avoid overwhelming the NHS. It increasingly feels as if the goalposts have shifted to Covid-Zero, and a paralysing fear of future mutations.
With waiting lists for life-saving surgeries increasing, with livelihoods decimated by economic collapse, and the sheer mental and physical strain of lockdown, the Government cannot take that route.
Trust in the vaccine. If Downing Street doesn’t, you can’t blame others for questioning it too.