The Irish Times view on England’s Covid-19 gamble: a reckless experiment

Scientists worry that Boris Johnson’s lifting of restrictions will provide fertile ground for the emergence of vaccine-resistant variants

Commuters cross London Bridge, on so-called ‘Freedom Day’ in London on Monday. Two thirds of adults in Britain said they still plan to cover their faces in shops and on public transport, while 60 per cent say they will avoid crowded spaces, according to the British Office of National Statistics. Photograph: Hollie Adams/Bloomberg

Commuters cross London Bridge, on so-called ‘Freedom Day’ in London on Monday. Two thirds of adults in Britain said they still plan to cover their faces in shops and on public transport, while 60 per cent say they will avoid crowded spaces, according to the British Office of National Statistics. Photograph: Hollie Adams/Bloomberg

 

By lifting most remaining Covid-19 restrictions in England, including even mandatory mask-wearing, Boris Johnson’s government has taken a reckless gamble that will almost certainly cost many lives and cause a dangerous spill-over effect for Britain’s neighbours.

But while a gamble implies the possibility of a windfall, the only serious discussion point in relation to Johnson’s let-it-rip approach is how bad its effects will be. The British government’s own forecasters believe the daily infection rate may double to 100,000 in just 10 days. They hope it will then level off, but if it does not, daily infections could creep up towards a staggering 200,000. This could result in 250 to 400 deaths a day. Thanks to the country’s vaccination programme, that death toll would be less than a quarter the maximum in the last wave. Evidently it’s a casualty rate Johnson is willing to accept.

By moving too fast, Johnson is endangering the health of many of his compatriots, and for very little gain

The British public appears much more sensible in weighing up the risks. While Johnson signals that people should forget about the virus and get on with their lives – his unconvincing last-minute appeal for “caution” notwithstanding – two thirds of adults in Britain said they still plan to cover their faces in shops and on public transport, while 60 per cent say they will avoid crowded spaces, according to the British Office of National Statistics.

Johnson’s rationale is that with a critical mass of the population at least partially vaccinated, the impact of widespread infection will be contained. It’s a terribly misguided calculation. No vaccine is 100 per cent effective. Even one that offered 95 per cent protection against hospital admission would still leave many people vulnerable; after all, 5 per cent of a huge number is a huge number. Large parts of the population still lack full protection, moreover: only 68 per cent of UK adults are vaccinated. If children are included, only 54 per cent of the total population is fully immunised. The health service is guaranteed to come under renewed pressure, and the test-and-trace system will struggle under the strain of mass outbreaks.

By moving too fast, Johnson is endangering the health of many of his compatriots, and for very little gain. That’s because the purported economic benefits of a quick reopening are already being undermined by delays and closures suffered as a result of so many workers having to self-isolate. The cost will be chiefly England’s to bear, but Scotland and Wales will suffer by proximity. Ireland is also acutely exposed, as are many of Britain’s other European neighbours. Indeed, in an open letter in the Lancet last week, more than 1,200 scientists argued that Johnson’s experiment was a threat to the world because it would provide fertile ground for the emergence of vaccine-resistant variants that could prolong and worsen the pandemic.

The British government cannot claim the coming tragedy was not foreseen.

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