Scientists across the world, including Britain, have warned that the planned lifting of Covid-19 restrictions in England, poses a threat not only to Britain, but to the world.
The warnings came in an open letter, and voiced during a summit, organised by The Citizens, an organisation set up by journalists, to hold the powerful to account.
The scientists were expressing dismay at what the government of Prime Minister Boris Johnson has heralded, with no little fanfare, as “Freedom Day”, on Monday 19th.
All Covid-19 restrictions are to be lifted, leaving in place only non-mandatory recommendations.
“Freedom Day” is the last stage of a phased lifting of restrictions, begun earlier this year, when the country’s rates of Covid-19 infection, and death rate, were at their highest. The day however, has arrived when infections are once again rising.
Asked what he thought was the greatest challenge to a stateman, one of Britain’s most successful Prime ministers, Harold Macmillan replied without hesitation, “events, dear boy, events.” Boris Johnson, a great admirer of another one of his illustrious predecessors, Winston Churchill, might have done well to pay a little attention to Harold Macmillan.
As he looked forward to his Freedom Day, events had already overtaken it, in the form of the virus mutating into the even more contagious Delta Variant.
“Does anyone know what time the pandemic ends on Monday?” tweeted Dennis Skinner, mockingly. A long serving member of Parliament for the Labour Party, for fourty-nine years, Skinner was a scourge of every Conservative government, until 2019, when he lost his parliamentary seat to a Conservative candidate.
The tweet was classic Skinner. The scientists and public health officials were more grimly prosaic. One of their fears is that lifting measures could make England fertile ground for new potentially deadly variants.
Speaking at the summit, a senior adviser to the World Health Organisation, Professor Jose Martin-Moreno expressed bafflement. “We cannot understand why this is happening, in spite of the scientific knowledge that you [UK] have.”
His concern was echoed by among others, the director of Clinical Operational Research Unit, at University College London, Professor Christina Pagel. She told the summit that given Britain’s connectivity to the rest of the world, the British government’s decision was likely to have global consequences.
“Because of our position as a global travel hub, any variant that becomes dormant in the UK, will likely spread to the rest of the globe. The UK policy doesn’t just affect us, it affects everybody, and everybody has a stake in what we do.”
Because of devolved powers, only England will implement the removal of restrictions. Other parts of Britain, Scotland, Wales and Northern Island, have the powers to decide a different course, from that proposed by the Prime minister.
Inevitably however, what happens in one part of Britain affects the rest of the country. If the virus “lets rip” due to the lifting of restrictions in England, as some health officials have warned, it is certain to spread nationwide.
As perhaps a sign of things to come, the Health Secretary (Minister of Health) Sajid Javid, has tested positive for Covid-19.
“We will have to learn how to live with Covid-19” the Health Secretary declared in Parliament, only a few days ago, echoing the Prime minister’s own words.
The government’s calculation is that with a successful vaccine role out, it is safe to lift restrictive measures. Public health experts are not entirely convinced.
The country’s public health bodies were moved to send an open letter to a national newspaper, decrying the government’s policy. In uncompromising language, they questioned the interpretation put on the idea of living with Covid-19.
“Living with Covid-19 is not the same thing a letting it rip” they wrote, “we should proceed carefully, not recklessly. The government must promote effective public health measures, because personal responsibility will not be enough.”
On Saturday, over 54,000 cases were identified, and 41 more died from Covid-19. Schools are closing early as more and more pupils contract the disease, with parents and school administrators at their wits’ end over what they say is a lack of clear guidance.
With so many public bodies, ranging from health, Trade Unions, to Education, not to say opposition parties, raising alarm against the lifting of restrictions, the government issued a response, but shows no intention of changing tack.
“The pandemic is not over and we should continue to move cautiously” said a government spokesperson, “extensive guidance is in place setting out the measures people and businesses should consider to keep themselves and others safe…”
“From Monday, it will be up to organisations to set their own policy on face coverings. We will continue to provide the public, businesses, transport operators, and other organisations with guidance on when people should consider wearing a face covering…”
In spite of the government oft repeated statement that they are following the science, conflict between public health and political imperatives seems to be at the root of contention about the policy on combating the pandemic.
With the insistence on Monday’s “Freedom Day” the government is accused ignoring not only science, but public health policy, and instead, listening to the ideological libertarian wing of the governing Conservative party. It is an ideology that places responsibility on the individual, and is sceptical, or even hostile to state intervention.
Added to this, is the still lingering suspicion that the government has never abandoned the idea of achieving “herd immunity” for Covid-19, thinking that is universally criticised by almost every epidemiologist.
Herd immunity is when the majority of the population becomes immune to a disease, thereby protecting the minority who are not, through limiting the spread of the disease. For diseases like polio, smallpox, measles, vaccination has been the determining factor.
Research puts the threshold for vaccination at between 50% to 90% of the population, depending on factors like the contagiousness of the disease.
At the beginning of the Sars-Cov-2 crisis, there were suggestions that if the disease spread widely enough, and a sufficient number of people who recovered, developed antibodies to protect them from future infection, it would lead to herd immunity.
This is the natural way for herd immunity to be reached. This however proved disastrous, in countries like Sweden where something akin to it, was attempted.
With the vaccine roll out in different parts of the world, the idea of herd immunity seems to be surfacing once again. But this without preventive measures in place, this would mean allowing millions of people to be infected, an unknown number of whom would almost certainly die.
Better to vaccinate, and keep the preventive measures in place, according to experts’ advice. Slogans like “Freedom Day” are flirtation with potential disaster.
Rwanda may be forgiven for raising a quizzical eyebrow about the goings-on in the UK.
At the beginning of the year, the UK placed Rwanda on its “red list” of countries, from which travel should be restricted. The reasoning then given was to protect the UK, from the South African, or Beta variant of the virus.
Inclusion of Rwanda on the red list, on which it remains, had neither rhyme or reason. Then as now, Rwanda did not have the Beta variant, prevalent in Southern Africa, and the UK, as well as parts of the world.
Moreover, Rwanda is recognised as of the countries to have developed an effective response to the pandemic.
And to state the blindingly, geographically obvious, Rwanda is not in Southern Africa. It would in fact have made more sense, if Rwanda had placed the UK on some red list, if Rwanda had instituted one.
In a way, while undoubtedly a hostage to fortune, the idea of working towards a “Freedom Day” made some sense: ask people to make the sacrifice of restrictions on their normal lives, in return for freedom down the line.
But, with no certainty of knowing how the virus might behave in the months ahead, the moment the policy was being drawn up, Harold Macmillan’s words should have been ringing in the ears of every member of the government. “Events dear boy, events.”