Prepare for a disappointment. No prime minister who is committed to an irreversible departure from lockdown and who has told world leaders that the same mistakes must not be repeated can now end it on 21 June. A delay is certain, given the dramatically worrying figures released by Public Health England on Friday about the growth and deadliness of the Delta coronavirus variant, first identified in India.
Hopes that large gatherings such as weddings might be given the go-ahead if everyone attending is tested, even while the rule of six, mask wearing, working from home and social distancing rules remain, are looking wobbly. The US Food and Drug Administration’s scathing criticism on Thursday about the effectiveness of Innova’s lateral flow tests, widely used in Britain by NHS Test and Trace in a £3bn contract as part of Operation Moonshot, has forced a review that may lead to their suspension. Spending billions on a testing process only supported by scant and partial data was a risk too far.
As the EU’s vaccination and testing programmes rapidly catch us up, the bloc is less exposed to the deadly Delta variant because the EU never risked the same volume of incoming travellers from India in April. (We were overly anxious about a potential post-Brexit trade deal.) And suddenly the UK’s pandemic management is exposed as more erratic and the performance overall more ordinary.
Why, it will increasingly be asked, is there an ideological resistance to a Covid pass? Had there been one in use now – or at least one planned – the almost 30 million adults who have been fully vaccinated could have spearheaded a return to normality and so permitted the transitional risks – on the way to a full relaxation – to be much better handled.
The Delta variant is now the driver of the pandemic – nine out of 10 new Covid-19 cases are Delta, reports Public Health England. It is 64% more transmissible than even the Alpha variant, first identified in Kent, which so worried us earlier in the pandemic. Yes, those who are fully vaccinated are better protected – but not completely. Twelve who have died from Delta were fully vaccinated.
In any case, only 54% of the adult population is fully vaccinated. Not even the World Health Organization can indicate what proportion of a population needs to be fully vaccinated to stem the spread of Covid-19, but it is certainly above 70% and may be above 80%.
Given the extraordinary transmission rate of the Delta variant, it would surely be prudent to get the proportion as close as possible to 80% by immunising another 15 million people.
Hence the imperative of delaying the ending of lockdown by at least four weeks to give the remaining 12 million people who have had their first jab their second, a feasible inoculation rate of about 3 million people a week, while giving some millions more, mainly the under-40s, their first jab that offers some protection. Then, and only then, can a further easing of lockdown rules be safely considered.
With the economy recovering, if more slowly than other industrialised countries, the economic costs compared with the risks of deaths and hospital admissions are trivial. The case for a four-week delay is open and shut.
It is all about the management of risk, as the Tony Blair Institute for Global Change’s recent Less Risk, More Freedom paper argued, also proposing that the government should bring forward a Covid pass. Even when we hit, say, an 80% full-vaccination threshold, Covid will still be in circulation and the risk of catching Covid and suffering long-term consequences will remain very real, even if the risk of dying for the fully vaccinated will be tiny compared with now.
Here, the gulf between the political class’s opposition to the idea of a pass and the view of the public is yawning and exposes the acute dysfunctionality of our democracy and the quality of its decision-making. It has become literally a matter of life or death.
Those who don’t want vaccinations on principle should be respected: but that cannot veto the freedoms of all
The libertarian wing of the Tory party portrays a Covid pass as a menace to civil liberties, a forerunner of Big Brother surveillance that should be resisted to the last. The Labour party, meanwhile, climbing on what it imagines is the union jack bandwagon, proclaims the idea to be not very “British” and promoting “vaccine apartheid”. Both stances are wildly divorced from everyday experience.
What are you and I supposed to do in everyday life – going to a pub, a concert, a sporting event, catching a train, shopping? At the moment, I know the rules, accept they work and can expect others to follow them and know that I am expected to follow them too. The risks are being collectively, socially managed. But when lockdown is over and the virus is still circulating,even though 70% to 80% of us may be fully vaccinated, I no longer have that assurance. The man without a mask coughing on the train or restaurant table next to me? Even if I am fully vaccinated, I run a risk and for many people that will be a risk too far. Recovery will be inhibited, not advanced.
Which is why the EU is introducing its digital Covid certificates for all its citizens from 1 July, leaving Britain behind. When the Office for National Statistics reports that 95% of us would accept vaccination if offered – a number that is surely higher now given the evidence of vaccine effectiveness – the threat of vaccine apartheid is wildly overstated.
It has not stopped Wembley, quite rightly, requiring everyone at Sunday’s England-Croatia game to provide evidence that they are either vaccinated or have tested negative. These checks should be improved and made universal.
Of course, the now 3% or 4% who don’t want vaccinations on principle should be respected, but that cannot veto the freedoms of all, including the freedom to travel. This is not Big Brother or “unBritish”: it is the social management of risk for all our betterment – a cardinal Labour principle.
Let’s delay the end of lockdown for at least a month. Let’s vaccinate at least another 12 million people before we do. And let’s introduce a Covid passport.
• Will Hutton is an Observer columnist