The Observer view on Boris Johnson’s Covid roadmap announcement | Coronavirus
‘Let’s use data, not dates” – so said the government’s deputy chief medical adviser, Angela McLean, on Thursday to MPs as she was questioned over the right framework for the roadmap out of lockdown. Tomorrow is the long-awaited day when the prime minister sets out his plan, and it’s plain that he and his medical advisers are at odds. Both have seen very encouraging data – the number of reported cases is falling sharply, as are hospitalisations and deaths. Imperial College’s React 1 study last week showed that infections in England have dropped by two-thirds in less than a month. The R rate is now estimated to be between 0.6 and 0.9, well below the 1.0 above which the virus spreads exponentially. Public Health England has early data suggesting the vaccination success is beginning to have an impact on Covid’s transmission.
What is provoking debate is how much this encouraging data can inform pre-announced dates for easing over the next few months. The answer, beyond 8 March, is not at all – with McLean’s boss, Chris Whitty, reportedly unhappy that Johnson is insistent that dates for action should frame decision-making, even if caveated by how the data evolves. Instead, data should be the alpha and omega of the whole process.
There is one area of agreement. Extrapolation of trends to 8 March means that even cautious scientists recognise that the risks of opening primary schools, allowing hand-holding in care homes, reopening socially distanced outside sports such as golf and tennis, and meeting one person outdoors, outside one’s bubble, are very low. The boosterish prime minister will be allowed to announce some, if not all these measures as good news. The issue is what lies beyond.
In thrall to a vocal libertarian right, Johnson then wants to announce, at two- or three-week intervals, trigger dates for decisions under the banner of a “cautious but irreversible relaxation”, so that by early summer the country – save for continued social distancing and mask-wearing – will be back to semi-normal. Under this timetable, non-essential shops would open at the end of March; outside hospitality over Easter; universities and all schools after Easter; and further easing to allow pubs and restaurants to open by early May. The Tory right will be jubilant, but the country is the constituency, not one wing of his party. The approach of easing by trigger dates is wrong.
The disagreement is not over whether this must be the last lockdown: everyone wants that. The social, educational, economic and mental health costs are known to us all. Everyone would like every act of easing – from opening schools to socialising more freely indoors – to be irreversible too, but this is where bitter disagreement arises. Johnson cannot promise this is to be the last lockdown under the excuse that pre-announced dates are only indicative and will not trigger easing if the data suggests otherwise. The medical officers know Johnson is incapable of resisting pressure from the right of his party and pre-announcing dates invites a repeat of the mistakes that have led to Britain having among the highest Covid death rates in the world.
Instead, the prime minister should say that data will drive lockdown easing, which cannot be irreversible if the trends suddenly become adverse. He will be guided at all times by advice from the Joint Biosecurity Centre on appropriate alert levels, and stick to one overriding target, rather than switching targets as they suit political exigencies. The Blair Foundation suggests only one target makes sense: to keep the R rate below 1.0 and reported cases stable or falling. The correct approach is to aim for this target, with the government agile enough to tighten pre-emptively, according to the data, or relax earlier if improvements are enduring.
Despite the vaccination success, too much is still unknown. It may be true that by the end of April nearly every 50-year-old will be vaccinated, and healthy under-50s made up just 0.94% of deaths in 2020. But we still do not know how much and for how long vaccines afford protection, how fast the vaccination programme will go, how quickly mutations are spreading and whether they are resistant to vaccines, and even to what extent the vaccinated can spread the disease. Johnsonian boosterism in this context is mad.
The good news, beyond the vaccination programme, is that the test-and-trace system is beginning to function well. People are now contacted on average within 78 hours of being near a Covid carrier, down from 120 hours in the autumn. Coming out of lockdown, local government and the NHS now have access to data, testing results, and a functioning test-and-trace system that would allow the tiering system to work in a way it did not in the autumn – especially if there were proper financial compensation for those who have to self-isolate. It is long overdue for the Treasury to model the costs of not incentivising compliance and spread of the virus, rather than worrying over the costs of furloughing.
The sooner the virus is under control, the better the economic prospects. It is a critical moment. Lives and sustained economic recovery, capitalising on the vaccination success, depend on the prime minister putting data before dates, sticking to the clearest of targets and relaxing step by secure step as alert levels indicate. His scientists and medical officers know these truths. It is time they backed them with resignations if they fear they are being ignored. Too much hurt, privation and death is at stake for any other action.