'Freedom day' goes against science of COVID-19
After 16 very long months of repeated lockdowns and restrictions, there is nothing all of us would like to see more than the coronavirus pandemic being confined to history. Who in their right mind would object to resuming our lives as they were before we were so harshly introduced to this lethal virus (albeit well-adjusted to the essential insights we gained over this challenging period, as we learned more about what really matters to us)? Hence, the announcement this month of what has been dubbed the UK’s “freedom day” on Monday — a date that for all intents and purposes meant the end of restrictions related to the pandemic — felt, for a fleeting moment, like a ray of sunshine at long last breaking through the dark clouds.
However, it quickly became apparent that, instead of a return to normality, the UK government’s flawed and careless plan for lifting all restrictions could turn into no more than a prelude to further suffering and yet another lockdown. Once again, Prime Minister Boris Johnson (fortunately for those who live in Scotland, Wales or Northern Ireland, he and his government have less of a say in the running of their affairs than he does in England) has fallen back on his populist tendencies and followed the route of appeasing the lockdown skeptics in his party instead of following the scientific evidence.
In a letter to The Lancet, 1,200 scientists criticized the UK government’s justification for its approach.
On the eve of so-called freedom day, Prof. Chris Whitty, England’s chief medical officer, has warned that coronavirus disease (COVID-19) hospitalizations could hit “scary numbers” in a matter of months, if not weeks, and that this pandemic still has a “long way to run in the UK.” For any responsible government, the recent rapid rise in cases to levels not seen since the beginning of the year, when the most recent lockdown was imposed, and the concomitant increases in hospitalizations and deaths, should at least have forced it to think twice about its decision to lift the legal requirement to wear masks indoors and to allow sports venues and nightclubs to resume operating at full capacity.
Clearly, there is no magic wand that will dispel COVID-19 and societies need to learn to live with it with minimum disruption. But this cannot excuse the arbitrary decision to remove all restrictions at this point in time, when the disease is once again spreading very quickly; not to mention spreading a false sense of security when caution and patience should be the order of the day. More than 53 percent of the UK population is now fully vaccinated and 69 percent of people have received a first dose, while an unknown number have developed some level of immunity through contracting the illness. Allowing for the vaccination rollout to reach its full capacity before lifting restrictions could have limited further infections, prevented the need for many more people to self-isolate as a result of being in contact with confirmed cases, and avoided loading more pressure onto the healthcare system.
There is a mistaken assumption that, since the most vulnerable in society are now fully vaccinated and many more have had their first jab, it is mainly the young and healthy who are susceptible to this deadly virus. And, since their symptoms tend to be less severe, as is the case with those who are vaccinated and go on to contract it, there is therefore no reason to not resume normal social and economic activity. Hidden in this logic, however, is the return of Johnson’s ill-informed and irresponsible notion of addressing COVID-19 through “herd immunity” — this time by rolling out the vaccine while allowing the fittest to fall ill and subsequently recover.
The rise in hospitalizations is a clear indication that, as much as vaccination has become a game-changer in containing and possibly defeating the disease, our knowledge of the spread of COVID-19, how it mutates, the levels of protection required, and the impact of “long COVID” is still in its infancy.
Newly appointed Health Minister Sajid Javid rather flippantly conceded that it is not beyond the realms of possibility that the UK will see more than 100,000 new cases a day — the highest rate of infection since the outbreak of the pandemic. Meanwhile, scientists are expecting another 2 million people to become infected before cases return to the low levels recorded in early May this year. In the face of such forecasts, how can the health secretary justify the wholesale lifting of restrictions?
In a letter to The Lancet, one of the world’s most revered medical journals, 1,200 scientists criticized the UK government’s justification for its approach as falsely implying that, though infections will surge, this does not matter because vaccines have “broken the link between infection and mortality.” They implored the government to delay any complete reopening of society until everyone, including adolescents, has been offered a vaccine and uptake is high, and until other mitigating measures, especially adequate ventilation, are in place in schools. They also maintain that wearing masks indoors should remain compulsory.
The scientists warned that not taking these steps could disproportionately affect unvaccinated children and young people who have already suffered immensely, producing a generation with chronic health problems, disabilities and a disrupted education. They also cautioned that the current strategy is likely to provide fertile ground for the emergence of vaccine-resistant variants and will further exhaust healthcare staff, who are attempting to recover from being on the front line saving lives throughout the pandemic. Dr. Michael Ryan, executive director of the World Health Organization’s health emergencies program, has justifiably branded the UK’s logic of letting more people become infected as one “that has proven its moral emptiness and epidemiological stupidity previously.”
Once again, the British prime minister and his colleagues are refusing to follow the science; something that has already cost thousands of lives during the pandemic. The government has abandoned common sense and flip-flopped with its decisions from one day to the next. In contrast, we should praise the mayors of some of England’s biggest cities for not following this discredited populism and for making wearing masks on public transport compulsory.
We have now reached another watershed in the battle against COVID-19. It is left to us citizens to listen to and follow the advice of the scientific community, even if this is not always the most convenient option.
* Yossi Mekelberg is professor of international relations and an associate fellow of the MENA Program at Chatham House. He is a regular contributor to the international written and electronic media.