Sajid Javid’s decision to hold an impromptu press conference last night felt almost inevitable. The pro-lockdown machinery had slowly been shifting into gear, with familiar calls for mask-wearing, heightened restrictions and even lockdown. The NHS Confederation and now the BMA have both called for the immediate implementation of the government’s “Plan B”— a plan which consists of mandatory face masks, working from home and vaccine passports.
But Javid stood his ground: that in this moment in time, there would be no Plan B. Instead, liberties would be maintained and normal life would continue. This will have come both as a relief to some and a betrayal to others.
Yet it is perhaps worth noting that it is far from clear that the measures demanded would be a panacea. Scotland, which has embraced both vaccine passports and face masks, has recently seen cases exceed those in England. Indeed, at one point in September, Scotland held the unenviable position of having 10 out of 14 health boards in the top 20 worst affected regions in Europe, with Lanarkshire taking the top spot for highest rate of covid infections in all of Europe.
While it is true that the NHS is under pressure (in winter it always is), we should remember that the number of those in hospital with Covid remain steady. Currently, the figure is around 7000, which represents a small fraction of the over 100,000 beds available. As such, it is questionable that further restrictions would do much to relieve this crisis. Given that a long winter stretch lies ahead of us, it is also likely that any restrictions brought in now would last through to the spring, making this a long and extremely bleak lockdown.
The last time restrictions were imposed, it was January. 4392 patients a day were being hospitalised with Covid and less than 500,000 people had been vaccinated. On the back of an accelerating vaccine programme, restrictions were broadly accepted as a necessary evil to buy time, which was sold as a bridge to freedom. The end point was clear.
The situation is drastically different today. On average, less than 1000 people a day are being hospitalised with Covid, a figure which has remained relatively steady since “freedom day” on the 19th July. Nearly 90% of those aged 12 and above have received at least one dose of the vaccine and 45 million people have been double vaccinated. Any imposition of restrictions would be in spite of one of the most successful vaccine programmes in history. But perhaps more significantly, to reintroduce restrictions based on current figures would create a precedent, which risks haunting us for years to come.
Instead of vaccine passports, and face masks, Javid rightly focused on vaccinations, boosters and novel antiviral therapies. The message was clear: that we must “learn to live with the virus”.
For now, this approach is correct. We cannot live in a state of permanent crisis, with freedoms dependent on an under resourced healthcare service. If anything, rather than the increasingly shrill calls for more lockdowns, we should instead ask for more support, funding and, where necessary, reform of the NHS. After all, as Javid rightly acknowledged, Covid is going nowhere.