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Paul Vallely: Johnson is right to exercise prudence

26 February 2021

Hasty lifting of lockdown would cost many lives, says Paul Vallely


Boris Johnson leaves Downing Street to travel to the House of Commons, on Monday, to set out a road map to easing the lockdown restrictions

Boris Johnson leaves Downing Street to travel to the House of Commons, on Monday, to set out a road map to easing the lockdown restrictions

THINGS are still delicately balanced in the battle between the virus and the vaccines. Despite the rapid progress in vaccinating the most vulnerable sections of the population, Boris Johnson has, thankfully, resisted the temptation to lift the nation’s anti-Covid restrictions precipitately and prematurely, despite pressure from hawks on the Right of the Conservative Party. So, what has transformed Buccaneering Boris, the inveterate gambler, into a prime minister of prudence?

In part, it is the science. The most conservative predictions of mathematical epidemiologists suggest that at least another 30,000 individuals are doomed to die before the pandemic is over. Lifting all restrictions by the end of April — as is demanded by the Tory party’s so-called Covid Recovery Group — would kill another 91,000, the scientists predict.

The experience of Israel, which is ahead of the UK on vaccinating the elderly, shows that the virus would bring a big increase in hospitalisations among younger people. Almost half of those being admitted to hospital in Britain with Covid are now under 70. The nightmare scenario is that increased vaccinations combined with increased infections constitute the ideal breeding ground for mutations on which the vaccines might not work.

In part, it is the mistakes of the past. The first lockdown was lifted too rapidly, as soon as the figures looked better in London. The outcome was a surge in infections in the north-west and Midlands, which meant the introduction of shifting tiers of restrictions which produced a see-sawing sense of unfairness across the country. The public felt that ministers had lost control.

In contrast, a snap poll taken by YouGov this week shows that 46 per cent of voters believe that the PM “has got the balance about right”. Just over a quarter think that the rules are being relaxed too quickly. Only 16 per cent think that the Government is going too slowly.

So, just who do the lockdown sceptics of the Covid Recovery Group represent? Their funding is opaque, although they appear to receive financial support from venture capitalists who have invested in the hospitality industry. Certainly, their members express particular concern for the continuing impact on aviation, pubs, restaurants, hotels, gyms and pools, the arts, and entertainment.

It is hard not to feel sympathy with such hard-hit sectors — although the accelerating effects of climate change suggest that now may be an opportune time to rethink our uncontrolled appetite for aviation. But the answer is greater government financial support for those sectors for the next crucial months, not a reckless easing of lockdown.

Experts know that the reopening of schools will raise the R number, which measures the spread of the infection. This is not because children themselves will get sick. It is because they will catch Covid at home, bring it to school, and spread it asymptomatically among their classmates, who will then go home and infect vulnerable family members. The reason that there is a five-week gap between the stages of the “road out of lockdown” is so that the process can be arrested if any one step pushes the R rate to danger levels.

Mr Johnson knows that his political future hangs on this not happening — and so do the lives of tens of thousands of British citizens.

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