Now is not the time to abandon all Covid caution
If the new health secretary is to be believed, we are about to embark on an “exciting new journey” come 19 July. Sajid Javid, like the prime minister, appears confident that restrictions will be lifted irreversibly on that date. The data, however, is beginning to tell a different story.
When Boris Johnson said his government would be guided by “data, not dates”, the scientific community – for the most part – endorsed the cautious approach. Now, the signs are ominous. Driven by the highly transmissible Delta variant, cases are once again starting to rise exponentially. Vaccination rates have slowed. An exhausted NHS is seeing a rise in hospitalisations. Over half of all people in the UK are not fully vaccinated.
The government’s strategy – to ease restrictions as vaccines reach more people, walking the tightrope between opening up society and not overwhelming the NHS – hangs in the balance. The heavy reliance on the vaccine programme as cases continue to surge, say scientists, may not just leave the NHS to pick up the pieces yet again, but potentially create fertile ground for new and even more dangerous variants to emerge.
The good news is that the vaccines have tremendously weakened the link between infections and hospitalisations and deaths. In the last seven days, there have been 116,287 cases reported in the UK, compared with 122 deaths (although deaths from these latest infections won’t be seen for two to three weeks). Nearly 62% of the adult population has been fully vaccinated.
But it seems unwise to underestimate this variant, which now accounts for 99% of new Covid cases. It’s roughly 60% more transmissible than the Alpha variant, which previously dominated, is linked to a greater risk of hospitalisation, and is somewhat more resistant to vaccines, particularly after one dose.
The problem with putting all our eggs in the vaccination basket is that we need a large majority of the population (potentially including teenagers) to be fully inoculated to be protected as a society, so that when there are outbreaks – as there inevitably will be – there are fewer people who are susceptible, and the likelihood of cases spiralling out of control is much lower, according to Dr Stephen Griffin, a virologist and associate professor at the University of Leeds school of medicine. We might need to hold on to some restrictions beyond 19 July until we can hit that high level of vaccination, scientists say, to protect the NHS from being overwhelmed in the short term, and to limit the number of long Covid cases and indeed slow the growth of the ballooning backlog over the long term.
“If we are failing to contain the pandemic now, I can’t see how removing restrictions will make it easier,” says Martin McKee, professor of European public health at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine. “I also don’t understand how, as the new health secretary seems to be implying, he can be confident that the virus will not mutate further to escape vaccine-induced immunity.”
Even Israel, which has one of the highest vaccination rates globally, is not immune to the wrath of Delta. The country was forced to reimpose mask mandates last week due to a steep rise in cases, just 10 days after lifting the requirement. Given the dramatic spread of the variant, the World Health Organization has also advised even the fully vaccinated to “play it safe” and continue wearing masks and socially distancing until vaccination rates improve globally.
Much like the health secretary, we all are desperate for a sliver of normality. We all want the restrictions to be lifted for good. But we can’t just wish for these things, says Stephen Reicher, member of the Sage subcommittee on behavioural science; we need to take action to squash the exponential rise in cases. Otherwise, the quest to embark on this “exciting new journey” may be handicapped by a decidedly grimmer reality.