Covid deaths fell to 17 on Sunday, the lowest daily figure since 28 September and no higher than the levels being recorded throughout much of last summer. Deaths are down over 40 per cent on the week, hospitalisations down 21 per cent. Yet the better the news on vaccinations and serious illness, the longer the road seems to be out of lockdown. The latest potential roadblock seems to be the threat of a third wave in Europe. The Prime Minister said this lunchtime:
‘On the Continent right now, you can see, sadly, there is a third wave under way. And people in this country should be under no illusions that… when a wave hits our friends in Europe it washes up on our shores as well. I expect we will feel those effects in due course. That is why we are getting on with our vaccination programme as fast we can.’
He did go onto to suggest that it wouldn’t, at this stage, affect his roadmap as announced on 22 February. Yet ministers Ben Wallace and Helen Whately have both said over the past couple of days that it is too early to book overseas holidays for this summer. Given that the Prime Minister’s roadmap proposed allowing foreign travel again from 17 May there is a possible contradiction. The government seems to be positioning itself for a reversal on this point at least – and forbidding foreign holidays perhaps for the entire summer season.
Is it really inevitable that another wave in Europe should be expected to roll in the direction of Britain? If anything we should expect the wave to be in the other direction. Europe’s third wave is being driven primarily by the more-transmissible B117, or Kent, variant, which for example now accounts for three quarters of all cases in Germany. That variant, as its name suggests, originated in Britain, and was responsible for the huge surge in new infections here in December.
Moreover, both the Pfizer and AstraZeneca vaccines currently in use in Britain have been shown to be effective against the B117 variant. With over half the UK adult population now vaccinated – the far more vulnerable half – there seems limited scope for a runaway third wave of infections in Britain.
Yet as we have seen over and over again throughout this crisis, the goalposts of public health policy are constantly shifting. When the first lockdown was imposed this time last year its stated aim was to prevent the NHS being overwhelmed. But it endured long after rates on infection had fallen to low levels.
The third lockdown imposed at the beginning of this year was supposed to endure until the middle of February, by which point the over 70s were set to have received their vaccines. That was achieved on target, yet nothing was done to ease the restrictions for another three weeks, and then only to reopen schools. Now, we seem to have a zero Covid strategy being imposed by stealth.
There was wide public support for this lockdown in January. But to judge by Saturday’s protests, and by data showing increasing levels of travel, the government and the public may now be going in different directions: the public expecting a speeding up in the lifting of restrictions while the government mulls even further delay. How much longer can public support hold?
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