As winter approaches, the good news is that we are in better shape than many people feared given the scrapping of almost all Covid restrictions over the summer. The Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage) warns that we are entering a period of uncertainty, but says that we are increasingly unlikely to reach January’s peak again. The bad news is that we are in worse shape than many people realise – and the government’s plan once more falls short.
A year ago, no one was vaccinated – now 80% of over-16s have had two jabs. But hospitalisations and deaths are many times higher than this time last year. On Tuesday, 26,628 new cases were reported and 185 deaths. The impact of the return of schools – which has produced a marked increase in infections in Scotland – and of universities will soon be felt. A Sage subgroup judges it “highly likely that a significant decrease in homeworking in the next few months would result in a rapid increase in hospital admissions”. As the weather worsens, people are more likely to mingle indoors. Winter viruses such as flu, norovirus and RSV are already surging; their impact may be worse this year because they were previously suppressed by lockdowns. Exhausted NHS staff are playing catch-up with the backlog created by the pandemic.
The government is still counting on vaccines to do all the work: introducing boosters for the over-50s and shots for 12- to 15-year-olds while giving up on other measures. In essence, it is gambling that deaths will remain at what it considers an acceptably low level, and paying little apparent heed to other consequences, such as long Covid, and delays in treatment for other conditions.
True, the arguments around vaccine passports are complex; while they increase uptake, they may also harden opposition. Other decisions – such as easing international travel restrictions – are simpler: they will increase risk. It is hard not to conclude that Boris Johnson’s own instincts and the need to keep Tory MPs on board are the key factors here.
It seems, at least, that the government has learned some lessons: it does have a plan B. But it deserves no credit for saying that it could reintroduce mandatory masking when it should never have axed this low-cost intervention in the first place. (On Tuesday, the prime minister said merely that people should “consider” wearing a mask in crowded places with people that they don’t know, and shied away from encouraging people to work at home.) Given its disastrous record, and concerns about keeping its backbenchers happy, there can be little confidence that it will act promptly this time around. The government’s delays have not only increased the toll from each wave, but bred public disaffection with the response. Worst of all, it is still failing to address basic issues, such as investing more effort in persuading young people to be vaccinated, or making schools and other environments safer through proper guidance on and funding for improving ventilation.
Strikingly, the notes from last week’s Sage meeting point out that other European nations have maintained more mitigation measures, such as masking, and are seeing their epidemics decline. They also stress that intervening early not only avoids an unacceptable level of hospitalisations, but perhaps the need for more disruptive measures – the kind of punitive restrictions that no one wants to see again. The pandemic will not last forever. But it is not over yet.