Due to the phased manner in which the Government has wound down the extraordinary apparatus of public health controls introduced to combat Covid-19, the news that the very last of them are being set aside might perhaps feel a little anti-climactic.
So it is worth stepping back and remembering how, at the height of the pandemic, there seemed a very real risk of that a rolling series of lockdowns and other restrictions might be needed for years on end.
Boris Johnson has described the latest move as a “moment of pride”, perhaps viewing it a dividend for the United Kingdom’s impressive vaccine rollout. A sense of relief might perhaps be more commonly felt.
Not universally, however. The fact that the Prime Minister is in dire need of good news stories has reinforced the suspicion, in some quarters, that this is a precipitate action made for narrow political reasons. Others worry about a return to the ‘old normal’ having a disproportionate impact on vulnerable people.
To an extent, one can see where they’re coming from. The language of Johnson’s announcement – “restrictions pose a heavy toll on our economy, our society, our mental wellbeing, and the life chances of our children” – echoes that of the more lockdown-sceptical Tory MPs. There is little doubt that the Prime Minister is, for obvious reasons, paying closer attention to his backbenchers.
However, the evidence does seem to support the idea that this is a good time to start winding down what was always supposed to be a temporary regime. As the BBC notes, the public is now much better protected against Covid-19 than it was at the height of the pandemic. Total hospitalisations may be higher than when ‘Plan B’ was introduced but, as Dr Raghib Ali explains, the crucial difference is that this time numbers are falling, whereas they were rising then.
Whether or not it is a good idea to start paring back the testing system (even with carve-outs for the elderly) is another question. It might have made sense to maintain it whilst winding up restrictions so the impact of doing so could be better assessed – especially if Grant Shapps wins his battle with the Department of Health about making overseas trips easier.
However, the argument that the current regime of universal free testing should be maintained because people need to visit friends and relatives in at-risk categories is, like the broader arguments against winding down lockdown that hinge on those groups, more problematic. If Covid really is no more dangerous than the flu (which is not to say ‘not dangerous’), then it should surely be managed in a like fashion.
Otherwise, the Government would risk setting up a system with no plausible cut-off point, because it would be based on reaching something like ‘Zero Covid’, which is impossible.
Whilst any transition away from restrictions should be accompanied by targeted interventions for at-risk groups – not to mention retaining the capacity to ramp up testing again if circumstances require it – ministers are right not to allow the specific needs of those groups to provide an indefinite basis for an expensive, universal approach