Eighteen months is a long time in Covid politics. Boris Johnson’s much-flagged series of announcements this week for the UK will mark his route “back to normal” and to “learning to live with the disease”. Like most people, he has matured over the past year, a journey from carelessness to panic to pragmatism. The journey was never about “following the science”. It was following the politics by cherrypicking the science, as with the initial decision over herd immunity. First the cry was herd immunity, then it was test and trace, now it is vaccination. And it is vaccination that has given Johnson his window back to normality. He owes a mighty debt to pharmacological science.
The cabinet, still drenched in the new Tory authoritarianism, is reportedly not ready to dismantle the grim edifice of the 2020 emergency Coronavirus Act, licensing the government to control crowds, detain and surveil the public, in order to stop the pandemic. The act needs renewing every six months and is now coming due. Johnson has acknowledged the public’s exhaustion with the controls that have dictated life in Britain for the past year and a half. They have forced him to ban families from their loved ones’ deathbeds, empty our mountains and beaches, and cripple a million livelihoods, all for the sake of bureaucratic one-size-fits-all. But Tory backbenchers see the 2020 act as embodying “the most draconian detention powers in modern British legal history”. They want its blood.
Johnson is therefore moving hesitantly across the risk-aversion spectrum from central diktat to a general reliance on the public’s common sense. In return for retaining the 2020 act against the threat of a future Covid wave, he will abandon passports for public gatherings in England and tourist PCR tests, with measures such as mask-wearing and social distancing possibly being reintroduced at a national or local level. Instead of lockdown, he will fall back on his cavalry, the vaccinators. With 90% of the UK adult population jabbed at least once, now 12- to 15-year-olds will be offered vaccinations, and older people likely given third-dose boosters. This cannot be called infringing personal liberty. It seems sensible. But it would be good if Britain were also to show a commitment to vaccination in developing countries.
Managing the risk of any public menace, be it disease, crime or terrorism, is always an ideological balancing act between personal liberty and public safety. It defines a free society and requires constant vigilance. Britain is by no means out of the Covid woods. While cases and fatalities are lower than they were, they remain high and not falling. A thousand people a day still require hospitalisation.
This is why, as the home front relaxes, attention focuses on what has always been the pandemic’s frontline, Britain’s health service. Like an army at war, this service can rely on patriotism and enhanced resources, but neither breeds efficiency. This month’s Treasury refusal of immediate aid to local social care can only add pressure to the NHS by pushing more elderly people back into hospital at a time it can least handle it. This cannot be sensible. Johnson is right that the nation must learn to live with Covid. He is not making cohabitation comfortable.