The government's reckless abdondonment of any measures to mitigate against the still-rising third wave of Covid is a dangerous continuation of herd immunity logic, writes Terina Hine
England will become the most unrestricted country in Europe for Covid regulations on 19 July, while cases are expected to reach 50,000 per day even before “freedom day” is reached.
At Tuesday’s Downing Street press conference Boris Johnson said “if not now, then when?” We were told the alternative was the bleak mid-winter, but why? By mid-September all adults will be vaccinated, along with 16 and 17 year olds - so maybe that would be a better date?
Or possibly when cases are declining rather than hurtling upwards at an ever increasing pace. And over the summer we could install ventilation and safe filtration systems in schools and work places.
This is not an all or nothing situation. Why can we not continue with a gradual relaxation of the rules, while retaining some mitigation measures? The most obvious being mask wearing in crowded indoor settings. To do so would not only safeguard our health but would boost public confidence and reduce the risk of a later policy reversal - something Boris Johnson previously promised to avoid.
For those who say “enough of lockdowns” let us be clear, no one is calling for a lockdown, and we are certainly not in one at the moment. It is not a lockdown when I can go to the pub, visit family, shop for anything I choose, eat out and go on holiday.
And for those who decry their precious lost freedoms, do they refuse to stop at red lights, or drive without seatbelts? Smoking in pubs was banned because it is not ok for bar staff to spend night after night, shift after shift breathing in secondhand smoke, yet apparently it is fine is for the same staff to breath in a dangerous airborne virus. What is a personal choice for some is an undoubtedly an increased risk for workers.
Just a few days ago the Evening Standard ran an article telling its readers how city infrastructure will “crumble” if workers do not return to their offices. So, as of 16 July working from home will no longer be government advice. The goal is to get us back to business as usual and to do so the government needs us to believe the pandemic is over. Backbenchers have been requesting that daily figures of cases no longer be reported - it “just drives fear” said one MP on BBC News.
Covid-19 is invisible, and symptoms are not obvious, especially in the early stages - there are no visible black boils erupting on people’s skin. Mask wearing is the most visual representation of the pandemic, so what better way to hide the fact that we are still in its grip than to tell people to stop wearing masks.
Local mayors of London, Greater Manchester and Liverpool have all warned of the dangers of lifting the mask requirement on public transport. The Transport unions have demanded the government rethink. Some in government have hinted that the clinically vulnerable should avoid travelling on the tube. These measures will, as Blood Cancer UK has pointed out, effectively force some people off public transport. Even Ryanair and easyJet have said their mask regulations will remain in place.
And the public? Well they too support the continuation of some restrictions. YouGov found that 71% think masks should still be mandatory on public transport, with 66 per cent wanting mandatory mask wearing in shops and enclosed public spaces. This is a decision based on hardline ideology, not science or even public opinion.
Today the School’s minister will confirm the decision to get rid of school bubbles and self-isolation. They ditched mask wearing a few weeks ago and now outbreaks are at their highest level all year. Removing the limited protection that exists in schools is a recipe for disaster - the only explanation is the desire to achieve some sort of herd immunity in the young.
Professor Christina Pagel of iSage, points out, letting a virus that we know so little about rip through a young and unprotected population is not only unethical but dangerous. She reports that 10-15% of children suffer symptoms for more than five weeks, and that there is increasing evidence that Covid can cause long-term damage to the brain, heart and other organs.
We are moving from, in Johnson’s words, “a universal government diktat” to a world where we rely on individual responsibility. Clearly the government has given up, has washed its hands of its responsibility to protect its citizens. Even their own ministers accept the move is a gamble - and make no mistake they are gambling with our health and our lives. If it all goes wrong no prizes for guessing who will get the blame - the great British public.
The government believe there will be 500,000 new Covid cases in the next two weeks - that’s before restrictions are lifted. New research shows the Pfizer vaccine to be just 64% effective at preventing infection with the Delta variant, the AZ vaccine slightly less. (Although effectiveness against serious illness and hospitalisation is 93%.) Millions remain unvaccinated or partly vaccinated, and there is limited evidence as to whether fully vaccinated can still transmit the virus. Regardless of hospitalisations - a lot of people will be spending the summer off work, isolating and sick.
But it's not just the immediate health risk that is concerning. Letting a virus rip through a partly vaccinated population creates the best conditions possible for a vaccine resistant strain to mutate.
Yesterday Sage cautioned that the gamble increases the chance of a new, more dangerous variant coming along which would would be more difficult to control and could lead to further, more stringent lockdown measures.
Johnson’s statement yesterday certainly left open the possibility of reintroducing restrictions in winter; a Whitehall document published on Monday made clear that ministers are holding on to powers to “reimpose economic and social restrictions at a local, regional or national level” if needed. Irreversibility has been consigned to history.
The Tories have been proved again and again to be reckless and dangerous. They have learned nothing. In March 2020 they said let it rip; today the plan is to let millions become infected. Ministers will cross their fingers and deal with the consequences later. This is a policy of herd immunity, a mass experiment being conducted on us and our children.
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