Neil O’Brien is co-Chairman of the Conservative Party’s Policy Board, and is MP for Harborough.
“Over the land freckled with snow half-thawed /
The speculating rooks at their nests cawed /
And saw from elm-tops, delicate as flowers of grass, /
What we below could not see, Winter pass. /”
Thaw – Edward Thomas
Britain is vaccinating faster than anywhere else in Europe. Covid cases are staying low here, even as global infection rates hit new record levels. We’re abolishing restrictions and getting back to normal, as the rest of Europe is forced into new lockdowns by surging infection rates.
Spring is in the air. Undaunted by the recent snow, the trees hold up bright new green leaves. Hawthorns in the hedges are clouds of blossom while red tulips shoot up in gardens.
Schools are back, shops open, pubs about to fully open. The economic outlook is for economic recovery and falling unemployment: the IMF predicts we will grow faster than the euro area over the next two years. The outlook for the country is definitely looking more sunny, after such a bitter year.
So many have died, and more have suffered. Out leafleting the other day I met a gentleman whose wife is in a wheelchair and clinically vulnerable. She’s been out and about just three times in the last year. For her – for all of us – the final taming of the coronavirus can’t come soon enough.
We’re in the last stretch out of the pandemic. But we’re not out of the woods yet. We should stick to the plan the PM set out for four reasons.
First, the roadmap for reopening is working. The number of people hospitalised with Covid is down from 4,000 a day at the start of the year to 200 a day now, even as we’ve reopened schools and shops and started households meeting up outside.
Second, voters solidly support the plan. They have done right from the start, and the proportion saying the pace is right has gone up. 54% now say we have it just right, 27 per cent say we’re going too fast and just 10 per cent too slow.
Third, people like it when politicians do what they say we will. After the awful opening / shutting see-saw of 2020, people like the fact that Prime Minister has set out what will happen after what date, and that we’re delivering on that. They want opening-up to be irreversible, rather than take risks and then be forced backwards.
Now, some say there’s no risk of a third wave. They’re often the same people who confidently told us there was no risk of a second wave. They’re wrong again – at least for now.
The risk of a new wave will indeed go away soon: at some point during the coming months, our vaccination programme should take us to herd immunity. After that point, so many will be vaccinated that new outbreaks of Covid will tend to fizzle out like a wet bonfire, rather than spread like wildfire through dry tinder.
But we’re not there yet.
Four in ten have not yet been jabbed. And vaccines don’t offer 100 per cent protection to the other six in ten who have been. If we tear up the plan and drop our guard prematurely, the population at risk is still plenty big enough to sustain a new wave. We’ve seen how quickly a surge can take off.”
And if we have one, it will reach those who are vulnerable, or older. We just reached the milestone of having offered vaccinations to all over 50s.
But five per cent of them haven’t taken it, including five per cebt of the over 80s. Amazingly, only 68 per cent of care home workers in London have had it, despite being offered top priority. Those people who are vulnerable-but-not-vaccinated, plus the fact that vaccines don’t protect everyone, would cause a final spike of completely unnecessary deaths and hospitalisations if there was another surge now.
Soon, that risk will be squashed by herd immunity. But not quite yet.
The Prime Minister was quite right to point out the other day that it has been lockdown measures, rather than the vaccine that’s done the heavy lifting so far. As Chris Snowdon points out, 80 per cent of the decline in cases had occurred by mid-February when the vaccines could have had only a marginal effect. Case numbers also fell sharply among the under-60s who had barely been vaccinated at all.
That brings me to a fourth and final reason to stick to the plan: keeping the threat of new vaccine-resisting variants in check.
I am desperate that we never have to go into lockdown again. The nightmare scenario is that some vaccine-dodging variant emerges and sets us back massively. So far, that doesn’t seem to be the case, but until we get a handle on the risk they pose, we should keep the new variants at lower levels by sticking to the roadmap.
There’s good news and bad news on new variants. The one from South Africa (B.1.351) which drove a recent outbreak in South London, seems to reduce vaccine efficacy a bit, but not catastrophically.
The bad news is other new variants are coming thick and fast. In India, cases have increased tenfold in less than a month. This seems driven by the new B.1.617 variant found there, which appears more infectious and more resistant to the body’s immune response. Seventy-seven cases of it have recently been found in the UK.
Likewise, Brazil’s P1 variant is twice as infectious. Deaths per day there have tripled over the last two months. P1 can reinfect people who have had other Covid strains. The most recent estimate is that having had a previous Covid infection provides only 54–79 per cent of the protection against infection with the new P1, and it’s now mutating further. Potentially cutting prior immunity by a quarter to a half would be a big deal indeed if that proves to be the case.
But we don’t yet firmly know how much these variants will reduce our current vaccines ability to cut serious illness, and we definitely don’t know what they will do to their ability to cut transmission. These variants are small in numbers in the UK for now, but are growing as a percentage of cases. Given the ballistic growth of these new variants in the developing world, the case for tough border controls is strong.
The good news is that we have a longer-term plan to deal with new variants, though investment in new, broader-spectrum vaccines.
In a nutshell, these vaccines will contain more bits of the virus, teaching our immune system to zap a wider range of variants. One such, the Valneva vaccine (setting up production in Scotland) should come on stream this Autumn, assuming it passes the regulators tests.
So again, timing is everything. If we stick to the roadmap we should keep new variants under control until the point where summer weather will then help hold them down, and then as we go into next winter we can be ready with new vaccines to clobber them without lockdown measures if they do become a problem.
At Easter, we were finally able to get friends round for a cuppa in the garden again.
The return of such basic freedoms feels amazing, but also reminds us what a bizarre and awful year 2020 was. Here comes the sun: but for so many it really has been a long cold lonely winter. I don’t ever want to go back into lockdown. That’s why we should stick to the plan, and finish the job.