Throughout the Covid-19 pandemic, the UK has been too slow to introduce public health restrictions and too quick to lift them. Those errors have cost lives. At nearly every turn, prime minister Boris Johnson has shown a resolute inability to learn from previous mistakes, his instinctive reluctance to impose controls on social and economic life apparently blinding him to the force of scientific evidence.
History is about to repeat itself. On Monday Johnson confirmed that most of the remaining restrictions in England will be lifted on July 19th. Post-travel quarantine rules are to be scrapped. School bubbles will be no more. Nightclubs are to reopen. In one of the most irresponsible moves, face masks are to be made optional everywhere except in hospitals.
Johnson's rationale is that England's vaccination programme has given some 86 per cent of the population at least some protection against the virus. It's true that the UK has run a successful vaccination campaign, and that that has bought it space to relax some restrictions. Instead, however, Johnson's government is about to squander those gains by removing even basic controls such as mask-wearing. Health secretary Sajid Javid has said England will have to "find ways to cope with it", as with flu. There may in future be a time for such comparisons, but not now.
In a country where the Delta variant is spreading rapidly, this is extraordinarily reckless. Some parts of north-east England are seeing massive surges, with South Tyneside recording a 195 per cent increase in cases in seven days and Sunderland reporting a 131 per cent jump. Many people in England remain unprotected. And no vaccine offers total protection, which means that vulnerable people could fall ill and die in very high numbers if transmission continues at current rates. A government scientific adviser has warned that the plan is akin to building "variant factories".
In effect, it is now British government policy to let Covid-19 rip through the population. It is a morally indefensible position that will cost Britain – and its neighbours – dearly.