June 17, 2021

As “Liberation Day” recedes into the future, it feels like we’re trapped in an endless limbo — something between Purgatory and that bit in a horror film where the characters are all laughing in relief at finally being safe, but you know there’s still half an hour to go.

Most of the vulnerable have been vaccinated, and weekly deaths are still below the five-year average. Over the past week, an average of 10 people died from Covid-19 every day in the UK, a drop of 9% on the week before’s toll. Although each death is a human tragedy, we would not normally reorganise society on this scale to prevent 3,560 deaths per year.

Numbers of cases (by positive tests) and admissions to hospital are rising, but from a very low point. The ONS estimates that in England and Scotland just under 1 in 500 people had Covid in the week ending 5 June. Prevalence in Wales and Northern Ireland is much lower.

“We have seen an increase in cases as lockdown measures have loosened, but this has not been the same across all age groups,” says Professor Jennifer Rogers, a member of the Royal Statistical Society Covid-19 Task Force. “The week ending 6 June saw an overall increase in Covid-19 cases compared to the week before, but this was an increase of 124% in the 20-29 age group compared to an increase of 27% among those aged 60+.” She doesn’t think this rise in cases among the young should in itself be cause for concern:

“The younger age groups are more likely to be unvaccinated (or have received only one dose) and arguably they are also more likely to be heading to the pubs socialising with their friends. We probably shouldn’t be too surprised that we have seen an increase in cases, but we know that this younger age group also has the lowest risk if they do catch Covid-19, so an increase in cases shouldn’t necessarily mean a subsequent increase in hospitalisations and deaths.”

Unlike last autumn, when there wasn’t much we could do in the face of rising cases, other than staying away from each other, the continuing vaccination programme means we can now expect things to get better, not worse. Over half the adult population has double-dose protection, including over 95% of the over 70s, for whom Covid-19 bears the highest risk of causing death or acute illness.

So why has the Government decided to defer freeing us from measures that are, at best, annoying and, at worst, devastating to whole sectors of the economy and society? There are two answers to this, a scientific one and a political one, though in practice it’s hard to separate them.

The scientific one is that, although the current figures for deaths and hospitalisations look better than the predictions upon which the roadmap was based, the near future is still very uncertain. All the models used to plan the roadmap are full of caveats about assumptions, as they should be. Among the things that they foresaw changing were new variants (which might be more transmissible and/or evade immunity), seasonal factors, and human behaviour.

All viruses mutate into new variants. That’s a fact of life. But it makes models of their future behaviour provisional. If the current variant spreads fast enough, and evades enough immune systems — either the previously infected or the vaccinated — models drawn up in February could look optimistic.

Then again, vaccine uptake and effectiveness (especially against death and severe illness) look better than the conservative assumptions made at the end of 2020. By March, Sage advisors were revising their predictions downwards. It was always expected that there would be a third wave of infections this summer, putting more people in hospital and sending some to their deaths. But still, we can’t know how bad the third wave will be.

Three separate institutions drew up new models for Sage in early June, all giving a range of predicted outcomes depending on variants, vaccines and policy options. At best, they foresee a rise in infections similar to January, but mainly among the young, with hospital beds occupied on a similar scale to November 2020, and deaths kept to a few hundred per day. At worst, they predict a repeat of January’s peak death rate. That outcome may not be the most likely, but the scientists modelling possible outcomes have put it into their reports.

This is where the question becomes a political one. A decision taken now could lead to tens of thousands of deaths in the next few months — or inflict pointless damage to tens of thousands of lives in order to save a small number of them. The continuance of restrictions may not bother those happy working from home and socialising outdoors; but for many who work in hospitality, the arts and entertainment, it could be a fatal hammer blow to their working lives. Social distancing rules make many businesses unviable.

Too long a delay to the final Step 4 of unlocking could even result in more deaths in the medium term, as some infections are pushed into autumn and winter. As the LSHTM Interim Roadmap Assessment comments, “even the 2 or 5 week delay to Step 4 can result in modest increases in morbidity and mortality when measured until the end of the year as more cases are pushed back into the autumn”.

If you are in government, faced with massive uncertainty from your scientific advisors, and potentially massive impacts whichever course you decide, what are you supposed to do? You could take a principled decision to do what you reasonably think will have the best outcome, accepting that you can’t control the actual outcome — but will be held accountable in any case. Or you could consider what policy will minimise the chance of your being blamed for a very bad outcome. You could look at what the public thinks you should do.

Every time the Government announces new restrictive measures, or decides to extend existing restrictions, some of us object, on the grounds that the measures are disproportionate to the real dangers of Covid, or are more harmful to the fabric of society than alternative measures (supporting people to self-isolate, for example). Tens of thousands have taken to the streets to object.

But the truth is that the majority of Britons have supported the lockdown measures. Yes, that expressed support may go along with a certain amount of common-sense rule-bending, but in-principle objection is a minority position. A snap survey by YouGov, following the Liberation Day announcement, showed that 70% of the English population supported the extended restrictions. Older people were the most supportive, but it was a majority across all age groups.

Given that public sentiment, what government would dare go ahead with a policy that might be seen to lead to another wave of Covid deaths?

The trouble is, we haven’t done nearly enough rational assessment of the harms and benefits of anti-Covid strategies. Invoking the idea of existential risk to push us all into complying with behavioural rules got the Government a free pass for policies that, in normal times, would have been unthinkable. Critics of specific measures were easily lumped in with conspiracy theorists who said the whole thing was a hoax, or “just the flu”. Suggesting that baton-charging sunbathers in parks was counter-productive provoked cries of “How many people do you want to die!?”

But there is also a danger that we’ll come to see the world only through the prism of risk, whether quantifiable or existential. If no level of risk is acceptable, why not surrender our everyday freedoms forever? When will we ever reach the point of it being safe to take off the masks and sit next to a stranger? When they first announced a lockdown in March 2020, the UK government turned on the tap of fear, but I don’t think they realised how hard it would be to turn off.

Until Covid came along, that falling appetite for taking risks was a soft cultural slide. Parents worried about letting their children play outside unsupervised (as they probably did at the same age) and then worried about their child’s mental health when their social lives moved online. Intimacy was something that the young, especially, liked to postpone, preferring more casual relationships, and mediation though technology. Why risk the awkwardness of telephone conversations, when you can text instead? Culture, from comedy to Young Adult literature, was trying to be less edgy and more inclusive, by avoiding material that might make somebody uncomfortable.

Covid is a real danger. It has killed millions worldwide, and it is far from over. It is reasonable to be afraid, and reasonable to take measures against it. But it’s not reasonable to expect a government to save every single person from it. It’s not reasonable to sacrifice every other social value to save every possible life.

Unfortunately, the Government’s authoritarian response to this deadly disease has been welcomed by a population that values protection above all. And having once offered itself as the strong, paternalistic shield against Covid, the Government will find it hard to back away.

Is there any hope for a citizenry so fearful, so averse to taking risks, so willing to give up liberty in return for safety?

There is one counter-example in recent history. A narrow majority of us willingly chose the riskier path in voting to take Britain into an unknown future, against expert advice and government warnings of financial loss and social chaos. Back in 2016, there was an appetite for taking a risk in the name of higher values — democracy, sovereignty, a sense of agency in an unpredictable world.

A country that voted for Brexit surely can’t be completely ready to give up all control over everyday life for ever.