The news that the Oxford AstraZeneca coronavirus vaccine can prevent up to 90% of infections is an early Christmas present for the UK. The Oxford scientists’ success comes just weeks after the Pfizer and BioNtech breakthrough. It signals that extraordinary levels of human ingenuity and expertise are providing the means to bring this pandemic to an end. It no longer feels fanciful to speculate about the return of lost freedoms in the coming spring.
It was therefore understandable that Boris Johnson chose to preface his unveiling of a winter Covid plan with an upbeat reference to the scientific “cavalry” coming over the hill. But for those at the sharp end of the restrictions that the prime minister went on to announce, there was little cause for celebration.
As foreshadowed over the weekend, the prime minister announced the re-introduction of a toughened-up three-tier system. This will be uniformly imposed across England with, it seems, little scope for local consultation. On the bright side, non-essential shops will reopen in time for Christmas shopping, and restrictions on gyms, hairdressers, churches and grassroots sports will be relaxed. But in areas placed in the top two tiers, many pubs, bars and restaurants will be limited to a takeaway-only service. Indoor socialising with other households will not be permitted. An exception will be made, across the whole of Britain, for the Christmas period, when different households will be permitted to form a wider “festive” bubble.
The all-important decision over which areas enter which tier is to be announced later in the week. But it seems likely that regions such as the north-west and north east – under severe restrictions for months – will face a beefed-up version of the same regime when lockdown ends. Mr Johnson suggested that a planned surge in mass community testing programmes could eventually allow restrictions to be eased. The continued failure of the test, track and trace system does not inspire confidence in that regard. As Sir Keir Starmer pointed out in his response to the prime minister’s statement, this month’s lockdown should have been used to fix problems with contact tracing. It wasn’t.
As the government attempts to keep the R rate of transmission below 1 in the months to come, it is right to err on the side of caution. It is also in step with the public mood. There has consistently been widespread support for a rigorous approach to combating Covid-19. This month’s lockdown in England was backed by close to three-quarters of the population, according to a YouGov survey.
But as the prime minister talks of the need to make “one final push” over winter, there has to be more focus on the sectors, regions and individuals that will bear a disproportionate share of the burden. For millions of employers and workers in pubs, bars and restaurants, the new rules will come as a hammer blow. Thousands will face closure in the coming months, unless targeted additional support is introduced. UKHospitality, the industry body, warned on Monday that 600,000 jobs in the sector could be lost by February. As a bare minimum, a form of the jobs retention bonus should be reinstated and the business rates holiday extended into 2022. The predicament of self-employed workers who have fallen through the cracks of government support schemes also needs to be acknowledged and acted upon.
The anticipated roll-out of vaccines next year clarifies the challenge facing the UK this winter. The end is in sight; a collective effort between now and the spring can reduce deaths, and prevent the NHS from being overwhelmed. But for its part, the government must do all it can to ensure that viable pubs, bars, restaurants, cinemas and start-ups are still standing when the country emerges from this ordeal. This is a time for solidarity, as well as optimism.