It will be hard for many people to suppress feelings of relief tomorrow as they enjoy the first lockdown freedoms of a spring that will hopefully lead to summer months devoid of all Covid restrictions. The country has endured a grim winter and the urge to step out and share time with friends and relatives has become increasingly intense.
Such urges should be tempered with the recollection that we have been here before. Lockdowns were lifted last summer yet the virus quickly returned. The fear that it could re-emerge in a third, deadly wave cannot therefore be ignored, although two key factors should give us confidence that we are now better placed to control Covid-19 than in 2020.
The first reassurance is straightforward. We can thank the remarkable success of a vaccination campaign that has seen more than 32 million people in the UK receive jabs, a programme that puts the nation on target to offer vaccines to all adults by July. And with vaccines not only warding off death and hospitalisations but also inducing reductions in virus transmissions, we can expect daily case rates to remain relatively modest. At least, that is the forecast, one that scientists will be monitoring with considerable care over coming months.
The second factor is less striking but still provides comfort – for it is clear that a sense of caution now pervades the government, which seems better prepared to accept scientific advice and which appears less likely to indulge in bluster and on an insistence on the early reopening of the country at all costs. This has not always been the case, as Wellcome Trust director Jeremy Farrar made clear yesterday.
As Farrar said, terrible damage was inflicted on the country when ministers recklessly refused to impose a September circuit-breaker lockdown urged on them by advisers who had become alarmed by new cases of Covid-19 soaring across the country. The end result was a jump in admissions to hospital that eventually led to a seven-week period in January and February when Covid deaths reached their highest levels of the last 12 months.
People need reminding of this very dark statistic. Boris Johnson’s government may have learned its lesson but it has done so only after tens of thousands of unnecessary deaths have occurred in the UK. The current lockdown that we are only now preparing to leave could have been lifted long ago had the government demonstrated caution, listened to its advisers and acted more swiftly. Let’s hope it now sees sense. Certainly, Johnson’s rhetoric is showing some restraint at present. How long it stays that way is another matter.
The country needs to remain diligent over the next few months. As we make clear elsewhere, there are genuine fears for the health of employees returning to workplaces that have not been assessed for Covid risks – at a time when our vaccination programme is still incomplete and when dangerous variants are still circulating. An example is provided by staff at the Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency (DVLA) in Swansea, who are preparing to strike over safety concerns after more than 600 workers tested positive for Covid-19 in recent months. Those who continue to work at home face other problems, with one group of call centre employees having been told that webcams could be installed to monitor their activity and work levels at home.
It is clear that after all our lockdowns, the route back to normality is going to be a hard one, a journey littered with problems as we try to readjust to the lifestyles we abandoned a year ago. We are going to need time, effort and support to adapt to post-Covid life in Britain – and a government that recognises the long-term nature of the problem.