January 21, 2021

The grimness of the pandemic and the prospect of its ending are coming together to breed confused emotions. In a bleak country where more than 1,000 people are being declared dead with Covid-19 every day, many people are starting to dream of a happier, vaccinated future.

For some, the future is now. More than 4 million people have had a shot of a vaccine, each jab sparking a little flash of hope. Social media and family WhatsApp groups ping with people keen to share the news that a parent, a grandparent, a great-aunt, anyone they know has had the vaccine. Each story is offered as proof that the light at the end of the national tunnel is drawing closer. Britain is cautiously optimistic, and that’s good for a government that hasn’t won much praise for managing the crisis so far. YouGov finds 61% think the government is handling the vaccine rollout quite well or very well.

Are we about to emerge from the darkest days and start putting the strains and pains of the pandemic behind us? Don’t bank on it. Britain and Boris are happy right now, but both should enjoy that tentative feeling of vaccine-driven optimism while they can, because a whole new set of problems is on the way. Indeed, if luck is against us — and it generally has been — then it’s ominously possible that vaccinating Britain against Covid-19 will bring about a greater test of faith in the state — in our coherence as a society and in our national character — than the virus itself was.

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The first act of the vaccine-tension drama is regional, with different bits of the country complaining that other bits are getting more jabs more quickly. Any metro-mayor or local political baron worth his or her salt has already jumped on this bandwagon of grievance already: Sadiq Khan says London is hard done-by; a cross-party group of pols in Birmingham say the same for their city. This will make for good local headlines but will fade away as long as the overall rollout continues well. And thankfully none of our sharp-eyed local leaders has yet decided to copy the health boss in Italy’s rich North who wants vaccine stocks allocated according to regional GDP.

Far more serious is how people behave — and see each other — once some of them have had the vaccine. Will the Covid rules survive the partial vaccination of Britain?

Despite the fretting of politicians and headline-writers, posterity will remark that the most notable aspect of Britain’s early pandemic experience was near-universal acceptance of restrictions meant to protect some of our society from harm. The UCL Covid Social Study found more than 97% compliance with Lockdown 1, with no reduction from March to May last year. Britain really did stick to the rules and, although most people with symptoms still don’t get tested, overall compliance in early 2021 is near the levels of May 2020.

Why? Far from being an atomised amalgamation of hyper-individual libertarians, Britain is, when the chips are down, still a coherent society where people feel themselves part of something bigger than themselves. We stay inside to “protect the NHS” not just because we want it to be there to look after us, but for other people too. We stay inside to “save lives” not just because we fear for our own and those of our family, but to avoid increasing the risk of the virus killing a complete stranger several links down the infection chain.

The uniformity of compliance is all the more noteworthy given that economic experiences of lockdown are anything but uniform: staying at home is an annoying way to save money for people with decent and secure incomes, but a financial disaster for many people in poverty. Even the young and healthy who have less to fear from the virus than others have, mostly, complied with restrictions that have disrupted their lives and damaged their life-chances. Far from being feckless and reckless, their compliance rates are not much different to those of older people, and they’re actually more likely than others to get themselves tested.

Young people haven’t turned their lives upside down just to prevent Covid killing their gran. They’ve done it to protect other people’s grans too. And this is where the vaccine, the lovely vaccine that will protect from the dreadful virus, could end up injecting real discord into British life.

The fact is, people who are vaccinated might still be able to spread the virus — and therefore still pose a threat to people who aren’t, some of whom will end up in hospital and possibly dead. And then there’s the nightmare scenario where a virus circulating in an only partially-vaccinated population mutates into something resistant to that vaccine. In short, there are still good reasons to keep a lid on things even after a big chunk of the population is vaccinated. But will there be persuasive arguments for that? The idea that you might kill someone’s gran unless you stay at home loses its force when grannies are out to lunch because they’re all vaxxed up and raring to go.

Will vaccinated older Brits comply with the rules if the lockdown persists well into the spring? There are reasons to think that many will not. Among them, the evidence that older people aren’t very compliant with some of the key elements of Covid strategy. The Covid Social Study shows 75% of adults aged 60+ say they have never requested a test despite experiencing symptoms on one or more occasions since the pandemic started. Will those people step up their compliance once they’ve been given a shot? No wonder ministers are ramping up their messaging to the vaccinated to tell them that they need to keep playing by the rules.

On current progress, by early spring the vaccine should be cascading down to people in their 60s. Will it really be politically viable for any government — but especially a Conservative one dependent on older voters — to instruct millions of fit, healthy 60-somethings to accept ongoing restrictions to contain a disease to which they are now immune? Especially given that those 60-somethings might be keen to get out and spend money in bits of the economy that dearly need their custom.

There’s another reason the political climate will make it harder still to keep the vaccinated at home and masked up. They don’t boast about it, but newspapers in the UK are largely read by people who will get vaccinated by the time the tulips are up. Most also rely on advertisers and sales that have been hammered by Covid restrictions. Don’t expect Fleet Street to argue that 60-somethings with an armful of vaccine and a wallet full of cash should stay at home until the whole population is jabbed in the autumn.

The prospect of lots of people once again circulating freely while the virus is still active is troubling scientists and health officials, and for good reason. The risks that arise from older people cutting loose once vaccinated include a domino effect on the behaviour of others. We’re social animals and group norms affect all of us: a powerful force behind Covid compliance is the sense that everyone else is doing it so we should too. If we think other people aren’t playing by the rules, why should we?

More specifically, why should 20-somethings who face no significant risk from Covid, and who have put their lives in the bin for a year to protect their grandparents’ generation, continue to do so when that generation has been very visibly (and expensively) vaccinated — and is out and about making up for lost time?

In the dry verdict of the Government’s SPI-B behavioural analysis experts: “Adherence might decline if people feel less of a need for protection, or the rules and guidance seem less salient to them as attention focuses more on the vaccine.” Crucially, SPI-B notes: “These factors might vary across different sectors of society.” In other words, a vaccination plan that only covers some of the country may well mean that when it comes to Covid compliance, we no longer stand together. Whatever national unity we maintained during the earlier phases of the pandemic will be tested as never before.

Will ministers try to hold the ring and urge ongoing restraint, more social distancing and curbs on gatherings? Already, this week’s attempts to curb Britain’s enthusiasm are looking rather underpowered. As the vaccine rollout continues, emotive arguments for ongoing restrictions and compliance will only get harder. By the time the vaccine reaches the 60+ group, the best reason to go on restricting movement and curbing viral spread will be that among those still unprotected are the group who are among the most likely to end up in intensive care with Covid, with all the attendant burdens on the NHS: overweight middle-aged men.

“Don’t kill gran” had moral force and emotive power. “Stay at home because Fat Uncle Barry could end up in ICU” seems unlikely to sway the British population in quite the same way. Maybe the vaccination journey will see some realignment in Britain’s intergenerational relations, the young and the old uniting to demand the restoration of their freedom, at a public health cost to the generation in between.

Then there’s race. One study reckons 72% of black Britons are reluctant to be vaccinated, and 42% of those of Pakistani or Bangladeshi heritage; conspiracy theories about the vaccine are said to spread widely in some British Asian communities.

This isn’t just awful because of the ongoing risk to those who decline the vaccine. There’s also a nasty risk to social coherence. Significant numbers of Covid-vulnerable BAME Brits going without the vaccine bolsters the need to maintain Covid restrictions for longer. Public health policy and basic humanity both dictate that they must be protected even if they’ve chosen not to take up the vaccine.

But I fear that point could be taken badly in some corners of the emotive, social media-driven debate about the virus. A country where a small number of people are willing to accuse NHS staff of lying about hospital occupancy is capable of unpleasant conversations about whether a majority group should have to make compromises to ensure the welfare of a minority group.

Sometimes, wartime unity is replaced by peacetime tensions. When the pandemic raged with no sign of an ending, Britain was all in it together. But we won’t get out of it together, and that could be our toughest test yet.