If the new health secretary is to be believed, we are about to embark on a “new and exciting journey” on July 19. Sajid Javid, like the prime minister, appears to be confident that the restrictions will be lifted irreversibly on that date. However, the data begins 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, supported the cautious approach. Now, the signs are ominous. Driven by the highly transmissible Delta variant, cases are beginning to increase exponentially once again. Vaccination rates have slowed. An exhausted NHS is watching an increase in hospitalizations. More than half of the people in the UK are not fully vaccinated.
The government’s strategy – easing restrictions as vaccines reach more people, walking the tightrope between opening up society and not overwhelming the NHS – is at stake. The heavy reliance on the vaccine program as cases continue to rise, scientists say, may not only let the NHS take the pieces back once again, but potentially create fertile ground for new and even more dangerous variants to emerge.
The good news is that vaccines have greatly weakened the link between infections and hospitalizations and deaths. In the past seven days, 116,287 cases have been reported in the UK, compared to 122 deaths. (Although deaths from these latest infections won’t be seen for two to three weeks.) Almost 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 is about 60% more transmissible than the previously dominant Alpha variant, is associated with an increased risk of hospitalization, and is somewhat more resistant to vaccines, particularly after one dose.
The problem with putting all of our eggs in the vaccination basket is that we need a large majority of the population (potentially including adolescents) to be fully inoculated to be protected as a society, so that when there are outbreaks, as will inevitably occur, there are fewer susceptible people and the likelihood of cases getting 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 may need to maintain some restrictions beyond July 19 until we can achieve 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-term Covid cases and, in fact, slow down the process. growth of the growing accumulation of long-term delays.
“If we are not managing to contain the pandemic now, I don’t see how removing the restrictions will make it easier,” says Martin McKee, professor of European public health at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine. “Nor do I understand how, as the new health secretary seems to be implying, he can be sure that the virus will not mutate further to escape the immunity induced by the vaccine.”
Even Israel, which has one of the highest vaccination rates in the world, is not immune to Delta’s wrath. The country was forced to reimpose the mask mandates last week due to a sharp increase in cases, just 10 days after lifting the requirement. Given the dramatic spread of the variant, the World Health Organization has also advised even those who are fully vaccinated to “play it safe” and keep wearing masks and social distancing until vaccination rates improve globally.
Like the secretary of health, we are all desperate for a shred of normalcy. We all want the restrictions lifted forever. But we can’t just want these things, says Stephen Reicher, a member of Sage’s behavioral science subcommittee; we must take steps to squash the exponential increase in cases. Otherwise, the quest to embark on this “exciting new journey” may be hampered by a decidedly bleaker reality.
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism