“The purpose of the state is freedom,” the Dutch philosopher Baruch Spinoza wrote. Its aim is to liberate everyone from fear, he argued, “so that they may live in security so far as is possible, that is, so that they may retain, to the highest possible degree, their right to live and to act without harm to themselves and others”.
Boris Johnson might nod in approval at the first part of the statement. But the plans for axing Covid restrictions in England, which the prime minister set out this week, fall far short of Spinoza’s fuller formulation. A more cautious relaxation would have been widely welcomed. Charging ahead in this gung-ho manner, scrapping almost all legal restrictions and failing to introduce mitigation measures (such as air purifiers in schools), or even uphold existing ones (such as compulsory masking), maximises the risk. The government is freeing some to return to aspects of life that they have sorely missed. But in doing so, those people risk serious harm to themselves and others.
In a letter to the Lancet, over 100 global scientists have warned that rushing ahead with reopening on 19 July – rather than waiting until more people are vaccinated – is dangerous and premature. Those concerns will be compounded by the relaxation of travel restrictions announced on Thursday. Allowing children and double-vaccinated adults to travel to amber list countries without quarantining on return increases the risk of importing new variants which could be more infectious or more resistant to current vaccines, just as opportunities for transmission increase.
The health secretary, Sajid Javid, concedes we could soon be looking at 100,000 cases a day, but argues that hospitalisation and death numbers are what matter more than anything. Unfortunately, he will not say what figures he expects or would tolerate. The link between infection and serious illness or death has been much weakened, but not broken. Vaccination rates vary widely; in some areas, fewer than 30% have received two doses. On Thursday, the UK reported weekly rises of more than 50% in Covid hospital admissions and deaths – both of which lag rises in cases – to 456 and 35 respectively. The government’s chief medical adviser, Prof Chris Whitty, has said that we are likely to see a significant increase in long Covid; experts fear that huge numbers could be affected.
Though the government talks of personal responsibility, there can be no responsibility without choice. For too many, danger is being imposed upon them. Vaccines are widely available, and people can still cover their faces. But masks are better at protecting people from the wearer than protecting the wearer. Young workers on public transport or in shops, not yet able to get a second jab, will be exposed to the virus by customers who choose not to wear masks. They surely need and deserve protection. Children are currently unable to be vaccinated. The immunocompromised are less protected by vaccines and more likely to become seriously ill if they contract Covid. Reportedly, the department of health will be issuing new guidance for the immunosuppressed and clinically very vulnerable. But while support for shielders is needed, confining them to quarters indefinitely is hardly a liberation. Nor is there much choice for exhausted NHS staff who face a soaring workload again, or for patients whose operations are being cancelled because hospitals are treating growing numbers of Covid patients or staff are having to self-isolate.
If anything, the authors of the Lancet letter are too generous in describing this as “a dangerous and unethical experiment”: that terminology suggests a degree of scientific rigour and concern. Instead, this is a political wager, in which large parts of the population are not players but gambling chips.