No one is under the illusion that the ending of Covid restrictions in England from next week is driven by science. The prime minister’s announcement on Wednesday was prompted by political desperation, not data. The daily death rate on Wednesday was reported as 359.
Scientists warn that infections are likely to resurge. While the level of infection across the population and health staff absences are falling sharply, the chair of the British Medical Association warned that hospitalisations are double the level that they were when plan B was introduced, and case rates close to twice as high. Dr Chaand Nagpaul noted that the NHS remains under crippling pressure, with a record backlog of six million patients.
After two years of the pandemic, it is not only Tory backbenchers who long for a return to normality. It is true that Omicron has wreaked less damage than feared – though many have still lost loved ones, or suffered serious and perhaps lasting damage to their health. With vaccines and treatments now available, it is entirely reasonable that people are rethinking what constitutes appropriate and proportionate responses to the virus. Restrictions have saved countless lives, but they have economic, social and indeed health costs: the effects of isolation have been punishing for many.
Yet Boris Johnson’s rush for the exit risks prolonging this wave – making life less normal, not more, with further disruption to education, healthcare and other services. Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland have chosen somewhat more cautious relaxations. Critically, they are keeping the mask mandate on public transport, in shops and similar places, while England is dropping it.
There is further concern about Mr Johnson’s statement that the requirement to self-isolate will end when the legislation lapses on 24 March, if not earlier (Sajid Javid, the health secretary, has since struck a more cautious note), and reported plans to ditch free lateral flow tests from the end of June, although Mr Johnson has said that they will be free for as long as needed.
One problem is that the government is still underestimating the true costs of the virus by failing to acknowledge the extent and often severity of long Covid. In December, the Office for National Statistics estimated that more than half a million people had symptoms that persisted for at least one year after catching Covid. In many cases these have been debilitating. Another is that the country is once again abandoning the clinically extremely vulnerable, and others who are at higher risk. These changes will make them less free, not more. While most of us endured a few months of lockdown, many of them have effectively been confined to their homes or significantly restricted in their movements. Research in November showed that a significant number had continued to shield. Some cannot be protected by vaccines. Others have not yet had the chance; the vaccination of at-risk under-12s is only starting this month.
The prime minister’s recklessness and self-interest have already cost the nation dearly. Though he now, absurdly, claims to have made the right calls “on the big issues” in this pandemic, the biggest issue of all is surely the UK’s Covid death toll: at more than 150,000, it is one of the highest rates per capita in western Europe.
His political calculations are now more naked than ever. A more responsible course of action would minimise the risks to the vulnerable by reducing infections through mandatory masking, ensuring testing is available to all and introducing proper sick pay. It is easy to say that we must learn to live with Covid. But to do so ethically and responsibly means focusing on the welfare of all – not the political survival of the prime minister.