A pretty bleak hope

I have a terrible admission. I suspect the Government has more or less made the right decision in relaxing restrictions from 19 July.

It’s clearly a fraught subject, but I can only take on trust what chief medical officers Chris Whitty said at the press conference yesterday (around 20 minutes in): whereas there was a strong scientific consensus for delay from 21 June, there is no such consensus now, and that there is “extremely wide agreement” that an ‘exit wave’ is inevitable, whenever restrictions are lifted. Those statements make it very hard to argue for continued imposition of some of the toughest government restrictions – on freedom of movement and assembly – that we have seen since World War 2.

The next few months will be bumpy, even if people take it as slowly as the Government is urging. Infection rates are falling in some places: the surge we saw in Brighton last month has subsided, but I suspect that this is a false dawn as students have dispersed (there have been similar slowdowns in other university cities). There have also been sharp drops in places like Blackburn, where this wave started, and peaked around a month ago. But I’d be surprised if cases didn’t go up again in coming months as people start deploying their new freedoms (though I get the impression that restrictions are already being ignored by some of the age groups who have seen most infections).

But I don’t think we’ll be going back into another full lockdown. I can’t see the point. In March to June last year, we didn’t really know what we were dealing with, how to treat it, how to test for it, whether we could inocculate against it. The lockdown bought us time. In January to April this year, we knew we had a vaccine that worked, so it would have been absurd not to seek to suppress cases of a deadly virus while the vaccine was deployed through the population.

Now, apart from younger people and refuseniks, we are as vaccinated as we are going to get. There is nothing new coming to save us. We need to get through the exit wave, and accept that there will be losses and damage (though scientists suggest that the difference will be one of timing rather than scale in response to different re-opening dates). And we need to hope – it’s a pretty bleak hope – that the NHS can cope and that we will be safer the other side. Despite the rhetoric, there have only ever been two strategies for dealing with covid: aquiring population immunity through infection and inocculation, or suppressing the disease. Suppression went out the window early on (and can’t really work long-term on an individual country basis), so we are left with managing the timing and route to population immunity.

The Government’s approach can easily look callous, however. The latest guidance for clinically vulnerable people more or less amounts to ‘Don’t get covid’, and we still lack adequate pay and protection for people forced to isolate because of the illness – particularly those in more exposed professions. I can see the case for replacing precautionary quarantine with a regime based on testing and symptoms, but it can’t make sense for people who know they have covid to be forced to go to work. These blindspots make the Government look at the very least careless about those who are clinically or economically vulnerable. I can’t understand why they don’t see this.

So I’m looking forward to standing near a bar again, to saying goodbye to bossy signage, QR codes and performative perspex, to returning to packed gigs in due course. But I’ll be wearing my mask on the train, and approaching the next phase of the pandemic with trepidation not celebration.

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