Those who oppose all state-imposed lockdown restrictions, any time and where, blame many different people for our own: Neil Ferguson, Matt Hancock, Piers Morgan, SAGE, Michael Gove, Bill Gates, Boris Johnson.
It’s surprising that more haven’t got round to identifying the real villain of the piece – namely, the NHS or, rather, our practice of running it “hot”.
Patients are shunted out of hospital as quickly as possible; beds are minimised; there is little spare capacity for a crisis: turnover is high. Given a choice of working at full stretch now or saving some capacity for a rainy day, the health service plumps for the former.
The NHS straining flat out, with teeming wards, is a bit like those big supermarkets, with packed premises – and those famous “just-in-time” supply chains that we read so much of during the Brexit debates.
This is the background against which Boris Johnson’s reported decision to extend the present shutdown provisions by a month should be seen.
A week or so ago, the Delta variant was increasing by 38 per cent a week, a doubling time of about 15 days. Now, it is rising by 57 per cent a week, a doubling time of 11 days.
Some will say: so what? We were promised full opening on June 21, weren’t we? And we have the vaccines, haven’t we? And in any event, Covid is killing fewer people, isn’t it, as treatments improve?
If only the problems facing governments worldwide were so simple. Let’s start with June 21. The Government’s Roadmap said that by this date at the earliest the Government hopes to be in a position [our italics] to remove all legal limits on social contact.
Next, the vaccines. Ministers have set a target of the vaccination of all adults by the end of July. As things stand, they seem to be on track to hit it.
However, June 21 is not July 31. And the number of those vaccinated is still only “more than half”. Maybe the refuseniks should take their own chances: why should the freedom of the rest of us be constrained by the antics of Piers Corbyn (and his fellow anti-vaxers)?
There is the complication that the unvaccinated carry a higher viral load. However, the key point is that if someone refuses a vaccine, the risks he faces are his own fault; but if he hasn’t been offered a vaccine, they can’t be.
This is why ConservativeHome is unsurprised by the postponement of “freedom day” until all adults have had the chance to be vaccinated: it’s what we anticipated when writing about the matter in May.
Is that it, then? Will the danger from the Delta variant be thwarted by the end of next month, or at least by the middle of August, two weeks after the vaccines have had the chance to kick in for the last adults in the queue?
Dismissing for a moment the danger of some new monster strain, succeeding Delta as it succeeded the Kent variant, the lingering question is: how much protection does a single dose of the vaccines give? Here is an estimate from the impeccably anti-lockdown Daily Telegraph.
Both “the AstraZeneca and Pfizer vaccines are only 33 per cent effective against the Indian strain after a single dose, forcing a recalibration of timings, which had previously been based on the idea that a single dose was 65 to 80 per cent effective”.
And here’s the point: that the Government target for the vaccination of adults by the end of July is for the administration of a single dose only. Double-dosing all of us will take longer.
How much longer? Ministers have announced no target. How many people need a double dose if full opening-up is to be sustained? They are being coy on the subject, perhaps because they don’t know.
This takes us back to the NHS. Sure, treatments are better. Deaths have been reduced. The prospect of people choking to death in their homes without palliative care, or in hospital car parks as A & E departments filled to the brim, has become remote, thank goodness.
But the catch is that the health service is doing so much more now than it was during the first lockdown. Then, it cleared its routine operations to cope with Covid only, barring emergencies.
Now, it is using one hand to deal with the virus and the other to return to normal – catching up with the horrendous backlog of cancelled and postponed operations that treating patients with Covid has caused.
Those who oppose all lockdowns argue that these have led to earlier deaths and damage from other conditions, such as cancer, than would have been the case had the shutdowns not happened.
But the danger is that precisely the opposite will prove true if full restrictions are lifted now: that the flow of new Covid patients into hospitals will result in queues for cancer treatments, say, getting longer, not shorter.
Hospitals can become inoperable even with no patients dying – and that is precisely the danger of a full end to lockdown, and a big wave of the Delta virus washing up a mass of younger patients at A & E.
Overall, the arguments for and against lifting all restrictions now, and keeping hands-face-space on a voluntary basis, are finely balanced. There’s a good case for lifting the whole lot now, while the summer is here and transmission is relatively low.
If we wait until the autumn, its proponents say, we’ll never get out. For by then cases will be rising again, and Ministers will claim that rising pressures on the NHS mean another postponement is necessary.
The counter-case is that by the autumn every adult willing to receive a vaccine dose will have done so. More will have had a second one. And by then the UK will hopefully have reached herd immunity.
This site’s position is as it was: we want to see a complete opening-up by the end of July. We’ve quoted Rishi Sunak before, and do again: Britain must learn to “live without fear”. Three points follow.
The first is that the Chancellor himself joins his colleagues, we are told, in leaning on the side of caution. His nightmare is that we open fully only to close down again, which would be worse than not opening up at all.
The second is that there is a gulf between the relentless anti-lockdown drumbeat from some of our friends in the centre-right media, and the take of the public: there is still a majority for the present shutdown.
The third is voters’ support is for the status quo will be buttressed by the fact that many restrictions have been lifted. Libertarians will argue that we own our freedoms and that the state doesn’t. They have a point, and then some.
But to understand the present picture, it’s important to grasp that people are no longer chafing under the rigours of full lockdown, even if they can’t live it up in a nightclub, support their football team away, or jet off for a foreign holiday.
We understand the pressure that Ministers are under. Nonetheless, by keeping travel with India open, they clearly speeded the spread of Delta.
Are we all at risk of a lurch back to lockdown, because of insufficient double-dosing? Conservative MPs should laser in on that question when they consider, debate and vote on restrictions soon.
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Author: Paul Goodman
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