For months, the prime minister has repeated the mantra that further easing of Covid-19 restrictions would be about “data and not dates”. Yet, as coronavirus cases in the UK continue to surge, and scientists warn that fully reopening society risks building “variant factories” in our own back yard, the government appears poised to put one date – 19 July – ahead of everything else. Once again, politics has trumped science.
Since Sajid Javid’s appointment as health secretary on 26 June, the UK has confirmed a further 188,538 coronavirus cases, with approximately 25,000 extra people testing positive each day. On Sunday, Javid said that the best way to protect the nation’s health was by lifting the main Covid-19 restrictions, even though this would result in a further significant increase in cases. “We are going to have to learn to accept the existence of Covid and find ways to cope with it – just as we already do with flu,” he said.
Another mantra beloved both of politicians and scientists is that we’ll need to “learn to live with the virus”, though they often disagree on the timing of when this recalibration should take place. Until now, the government has also avoided specifying the meaning of this slippery phrase. Now that it is poised to set a date, we are about to learn what the health secretary’s vision of “living with the virus” actually means.
For Javid, a thriving economy is at odds with continuing Covid-19 restrictions. There’s no doubt that measures such as shutting down businesses and events, or instructing individuals and entire school bubbles to self-isolate if they come into contact with an infected person, are economically damaging and may be harmful to people’s mental, or even physical health. Other measures, however, such as the wearing of masks, are a mere inconvenience for most people, but they do reduce transmission – particularly indoors, when coronavirus cases are high. Doing away with them has nothing to do with the economy or people’s mental health; it is motivated by ideology.
No scientist is arguing that Covid restrictions should remain in place forever. “The frustrating thing is that we know double-vaccines work: they protect the vast majority of people, even from variants, even from Delta, so there is an endpoint to this,” said Stephen Griffin, professor of virology at the University of Leeds.
“The real worry is that that they’re basically saying it’s not going to be so bad, and we’ve got most people vaccinated so let’s just carry on. If you want to actually stop new outbreaks, and the tremendous damage done by this variant, you need to build your vaccinne coverage up, to include, in my view, children aged 12 years and above, because that’s where many of the infections are at the moment, but also because there’s lots of socialising going on – and it is about to increase.
“Yes, we may eventually have to live without brakes and with some infections, but we’re nowhere near a herd immunity threshold, and it’s not a magic barrier that you go through – it is literally the more the merrier. You need to build that wall of double-vaccinated people, and if you do that, you might not need boosters, because if everyone has that level of immunity, then there will be no cases.”
Another frustration, among the government’s own advisers, is that ministers have repeatedly ignored their calls to make public spaces safer by improving ventilation.
“It is no good telling people to open windows if windows don’t open, as is the case in many public and private buildings – hence the need for ventilation grants for existing properties and ventilation standards for new builds,” wrote Prof Stephen Reicher and Prof Susan Michie – two members of the Sage subcommittee advising on behavioural science – in a recent blog for the British Medical Journal. Neither is it any good telling people to avoid stuffy spaces if they don’t know which ones are well-aired, they wrote, or telling the owners of public and private buildings to improve ventilation without regular inspections and enforcement.
To most scientists, living with the virus means doing everything you can to reduce the risks, before taking the brakes off. It doesn’t mean taking the brakes off and just seeing what happens.