It feels like watching the stars come out at night, punching their tiny brilliant holes in the darkness one by one.
Every vaccine given, every story of some friend’s elderly father or previously housebound great-aunt getting the call-up, is another small victory. One less potential victim for the virus. One more family spared a tragedy. Even the proposed handing out of “I’ve been vaccinated” stickers, like the ones dished out to small children for being brave at the dentist’s, seems only mildly toe-curling. It’s a lovely thing to hear that someone you know has been plucked to safety, like a shipwrecked sailor hauled on board a lifeboat. What’s wrong with spreading the joy?
Yet while this week’s long-awaited decision to approve the rollout of the Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccine is indisputably a breakthrough, it also takes us closer to a decision Boris Johnson cannot afford to get wrong. When Matt Hancock, the health secretary, was asked in parliament on Wednesday exactly how far down the vaccination priority list we have to get before restrictions could be lifted, he tap-danced around the question. But it isn’t going to go away. If all goes to plan, the over-80s and a fair few over-75s ought to have been vaccinated by February. So what happens when a critical mass of lockdown sceptics take that as their cue to start arguing it’s time for everyone to resume a normal life, no matter what the doctors say?
We are headed, in other words, for a potentially dangerous moment in the politics of the pandemic. Already a handful of the usual rightwing suspects have spent the week noisily demanding that old and ill people be confined to their homes (sorry, “shielded”) so that everyone else can get on with merrily going to restaurants. With each older person vaccinated, they’ll redouble their demands to be set free, and the fact that they have been wrong at every other critical stage of the pandemic won’t stop them heaping scorn on anyone who disagrees. They will argue that with the vaccine beginning to shield the most vulnerable people, everyone else should now be trusted to make their own decisions. And as the economic damage done by a year of successive lockdowns mounts up, they may well carry more of the public with them. The last thing desperate people will want to hear is that it’s not that simple, even if it isn’t and never has been.
Hancock hinted as much when he said that the timetable for lifting restrictions would depend on observation of transmission rates, as well as on the numbers who have or haven’t had the jab. Translation: even with a vaccine, the R number must still be low before we can all plunge back into crowded pubs, restaurants and theatres, throwing masks and caution to the wind. Even once the nation’s older people have all gone under the needle, rampant unchecked spread among those who are unvaccinated could still potentially be dangerous. Even 50-somethings can get sick enough with Covid to need intensive care – ask Boris Johnson – and if hospitals are sufficiently swamped that there are no ICU beds free at the time, then they can also die for lack of it.
The threat posed to younger people by long Covid, the mysteriously disabling condition that for some can follow the virus, isn’t to be treated lightly either, given that we don’t yet understand what causes it or how to treat it. Nor do we know yet how long the protection offered by the vaccine lasts, or whether it stops people unwittingly spreading the virus, which is why the deputy chief medical officer for England, Jonathan Van-Tam, warned this week that even those who are newly vaccinated shouldn’t be behaving with “wild abandon” just yet. (Judging by the questions friends are starting to get asked by recently jabbed parents, that’s a message that has yet to cut through in some quarters). Yet still the prime minister sticks to his line that the war will be more or less over by April, sparking sunny headlines about freedom now being within our grasp. Given his previous prediction that it would be all over by Christmas, it would probably be wise not to make any ambitious plans for Easter. But there’s a risk here of failing to prepare people for the reality ahead.
Time and time again, this government has chosen not to level with the country about what may be coming, only to end up frantically raising the alarm at the last minute. It’s no way to convince even those trying to engage in good faith with their advice, let alone those with their fingers still jammed firmly in their ears, insisting things aren’t that bad even as hospitals start running out of oxygen.
So here’s what ministers struggle to say out loud; that social distancing and all the disruption it brings to daily life is probably here to stay for longer than anyone wants to think, even if the harshest elements of lockdown can be lifted by spring. That the higher numbers climb this January, the longer it will take to get them down again, especially if the government remains allergic to the very idea of another national lockdown. That we can still look forward to gradually emerging from hibernation this spring, but that it could be 2022 before things are properly back to normal in Britain (and longer before that’s true globally). And, above all, that scrapping all the rules prematurely would be a terrible waste of both the sacrifices made so far and the gift science has given us. Vaccines have given us a precious chance, for once, to get ahead of this horrible virus. We owe it to those who have brought us this far not to fritter that chance away.