For most of this year, Boris Johnson’s proudest boast has been that Britain had the fastest vaccine rollout of almost any country in the world. The jabs were seen as our passport to freedom and the end of restrictions. Early indications among both old and young suggested similar excitement to get vaccinated. When Twickenham stadium opened a pop-up vaccine centre in May to offer 15,000 jabs to the over-18s it drew longer queues than the rugby. Ministers were delighted with the enthusiasm. If this was any sign of what was to come from youth uptake, they thought, the rest of the rollout would be plain sailing.
But now there’s a problem. Plenty of jabs are still on offer, but fewer people want them. Vaccine rollout has slowed to a third of its former pace. Every adult has been offered a jab and just 5 per cent of over-seventies have declined. But among the under-thirties, the hesitancy rate looks closer to 40 per cent.
Progress is still being made but it’s too slow, officials think, to defeat the virus, which is ripping through the population at an exponential pace. The young put their lives on hold for well over a year — but now they’re not co-operating. Ministers have become accustomed to emergency powers at their fingertips and feel inclined to continue using them.
This led to the bizarre sight of Boris Johnson marking what was once called ‘freedom day’ — 19 July — by speaking from Chequers in quarantine and telling the young that unless they take the vaccine they will not be allowed to go to nightclubs come autumn. A negative test will no longer be enough to guarantee entry. A prime minister who would have once rejoiced at the sight of young people tripping the light fantastic seemed barely able to hide his fury at their audacity, that they would dare to enjoy the freedoms restored to them the night before. It seems the right to party is now dependent on following the party line.
Listening to Johnson’s lecture, you might struggle to believe what’s actually happened in Britain over the past eight months. The vaccines have made Covid far less lethal: those most at risk have been protected, and take-up has been huge. More than 90 per cent of adults are estimated to have antibodies. This doesn’t stop infections (just ask Sajid Javid, the self-isolating Health Secretary) but the link between infections and hospitalisations is barely a quarter of what it once was. We have learned the hard way that this virus can surprise us, but thanks to remarkable scientific achievement, the threat of the NHS being overwhelmed — from Covid anyway — has diminished.
But cases are still rising, fast, and the government is spooked. The surge shouldn’t come as a surprise, especially to the ministers who devised the exit strategy, yet they seem baffled nonetheless. It raises questions as to whether NHS capacity was, in fact, the justification for restrictions. If it were, Johnson would be toasting the end of lockdown. But he’s ushering in a ‘new normal’ instead.
The Delta variant changed the equation: although ministers won’t admit it, they had been working to a plan that would see Britain achieve herd immunity by the autumn. Delta is far more contagious than other variants and has placed herd immunity much further out of reach — it could require something close to 85 per cent. Given that 21 per cent of the population are children, the adults need to comply.
The problem isn’t unique to the UK. Other highly vaccinated countries, including Israel, are finding their original assumptions about herd immunity were too optimistic. Emmanuel Macron has decided to take a tough line with the French, mandating jabs for healthcare workers and vaccine passports to access much of public life. This has led to mass protest — but also to a 75 per cent increase in under-thirties having their jabs. In Ireland, only the double-vaxxed can dine indoors, and demand for vaccines is up there too. This has attracted attention in Whitehall. It’s a new way of doing things: not so much to ‘nudge’ people into taking a vaccine, but to deprive them of their liberty if they don’t.
The Prime Minister is loath to use the iron fist of the state, we’re constantly told. Yet his commitment to ‘freedom’ lasted for about 17 hours. As well as not being able to go to nightclubs from September, non-compliant citizens may also be banned from other ‘mass events’, Johnson said. Nor will he rule out needing jabs for the pub. The old notion of ‘Covid status certification’ is gone and, in its place, a new system: no vaccine, no entry.
This is a dangerous strategy. It risks flipping the narrative about vaccination on its head: from being a liberalising, empowering force for good to a mission of soft coercion. Coercion is rarely a winning strategy for swaying hearts and minds. How many people, genuinely nervous about the vaccine, would be reassured by this turn of events?
From here, the risks increase. Jabs are presented by the Prime Minister as an individual’s only route to enjoy ‘life’s most important pleasures and opportunities’, which he says ‘are likely to be increasingly dependent on vaccination’. Some suspect a bluff: that if vaccination rates among the young surge, the threat of passports will be dropped. ‘Unless we’ve lost our minds,’ one Tory MP says, ‘it’s just a cynical strategy to increase uptake in the next eight weeks.’ But others inside Whitehall sense that the measures might be ramped up. Ministers are talking about denying air travel to the unvaccinated — which, on an island, makes it increasingly difficult to act on one’s right to leave the country.
It seems absurd to believe that a British government, without even having a proper debate in parliament, would consider ushering in a system that feels as though it was designed in China, a country known for its sophisticated and omniscient ‘social credit’ system. But the government’s track record doesn’t inspire much hope. It was illegal to leave the country for months this winter, or even to show up at an airport, unless you met the strict government criteria allowing you to do so. Ministers promised for months that vaccine passports would never see the light of day. The vaccine minister Nadhim Zahawi said they were ‘discriminatory’. Now they’re being ushered in, with the full force of the law. Given that the NHS app also logs flu vaccines (and the coming booster shots) it’s not unreasonable to ask where all this ends. If the biosecurity state evolves in dramatic lurches like these, what might be next?
The government seems to have forgotten that it has the power to change the rules. The Prime Minister and the Chancellor were forced into isolation when it became abundantly clear that their loophole to skip a ten-day quarantine wouldn’t be tolerated. But ministers’ failure to envisage how Test and Trace might work during an exit wave has led to the famous ‘pingdemic’. One person is being told to self-isolate every second. Senior politicians, as they are discovering, are not exempt.
Ministers have models for infections but no one seemed to think it would be worth modelling the effect on the economy when people in their twenties are forced back into their homes. The supermarket chain Iceland has already closed several shops, because so many of its staff are isolating. The Metropolitan Underground line was suspended last weekend after so many staff were housebound that it could not operate. The government has promised exemptions for double-jabbed key workers but that’s not much good for the thousands of businesses that have been told they’re ‘non-essential’ for more than a year, and are deprived of customers and income as a result. Many businesses feel betrayed. ‘It’s like freedom in name only,’ says Kate Nicholls, the chief executive for UK Hospitality, which estimates vaccine passports will hit profitability by a quarter, not just because of additional administration but also because of the potential loss of customers.
But while the damage to industry in the next few weeks may prove severe, social cohesion is at even greater risk, as ministers prepare to carve up society based on health status. This all stems from the government’s failure to stick to its guns. It delayed ‘freedom day’ by four weeks and should have used this time to communicate its strategy to the public — as well as working out how to reform the Test and Trace app. It failed to do so, and has caused greater national confusion instead.
After a year and a half of lockdowns and restrictions, the young (and old) who headed out to the bars and clubs in the early hours of Monday took the promise of freedom day at face value. But the government had something entirely different in mind. Ministers can’t bring themselves to say it outright, but there is little intention to return to life as it once was. There hasn’t been for months now.
There may still be another U-turn in this Covid saga. Parliament may intervene. But for all the talk of a ‘roadmap to freedom’, no one can pretend we have arrived at the end. Our old understanding of liberty has disappeared and, in this limbo, it is our leaders who appear most lost.
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