Follow the science – it's time to unlock

8 July 2021

9:10 AM

8 July 2021

9:10 AM

Shortly before Boris Johnson and Keir Starmer were slugging it out in PMQs — debating whether the mass-lifting of restrictions on 19 July is indeed a good idea — the Office for National Statistics released their latest antibody survey, the details of which support the Prime Minister’s argument for reopening.

It is now estimated that roughly nine in ten adults in England, Wales and Northern Ireland had antibodies in the week beginning 14 June (eight out of ten in Scotland). Moreover, antibody prevalence is on the rise in younger age groups. The percentage of adults testing positive for antibodies aged 35 and older ranges between 94 per cent and 99 per cent — with the most antibody protection detected for the elderly.

As the ONS is always quick to note, ‘detection of antibodies alone is not a precise measure of the immunity protection given by vaccination’. Despite getting vaccinated, some people will still contract Covid-19, while there are other factors like natural immunity that can influence infection. But the data is yet another reminder, not only that vaccines work, but that they work better and provide more protection than many would have dared hope this time last year.

That the vast majority of adults are now thought to have some level of antibody protection in England supports Johnson’s strategy for reopening: if we don’t open now, when? While government could wait for protection for the whole adult population to tick closer to 100 per cent, another delay to Freedom Day would risk an exit wave of infections overlapping with school returns, or a more difficult time for NHS capacity, which worsens as we head into autumn and winter months.

With the most vulnerable age groups showing the highest antibody prevalence — nearly 100 per cent — this is the moment (or, arguably, two weeks ago was the moment) to return to normal. Whatever rules stay now risk lingering for the rest of the year, if not indefinitely. But Johnson can’t just rely on good data like this to sway sceptics that reopening is the right thing to do. As James Forsyth points out, the government’s unwillingness to address how many hospitalisations they think could result from rocketing case numbers is only leading to more questions — and concern that internal figures suggest hospitals may not be able to cope.

As it happens, right now hospitalisations are notably lower than even the most optimistic Sage scenarios for late June and early July — but cagey messaging on what’s to come is unlikely to boost confidence among the nervous, who the government is hoping will start to phase themselves back into normal activity.

For better or worse, the nation has become accustomed to hearing about daily death rates. The government is better off being upfront with the nation about what to expect: more Covid hospitalisations and deaths, but far fewer than pre-vaccine times. Avoiding this frank conversation is bound to cause more trouble than an open approach.

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