How quickly should restrictions be eased?

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I must admit that as I read the news on Monday evening, I did, like many others, breathe a sigh of relief. The Prime Minister has set out his roadmap for easing coronavirus-related restrictions, and it seemed like a light had finally appeared at the end of the tunnel.

The proposed strategy is based on too long of a timeline

I came to the conclusion that the proposed strategy is based on too long a timeline, and while an abundance of caution might be a virtue in other areas of public policy, in this instance, it will come at a very high price.

The restrictions currently in place are doing a lot of damage to our society; the PM himself has acknowledged that they “debilitate our economy, our physical and mental well-being, and the life chances of our children”. The truth is that if we objectively evaluate whether the ever-declining risk posed by the coronavirus justifies the harm done by these restrictions, we are bound to come to the conclusion that it does not.

We now know that three weeks after receiving one dose of either the Oxford/AstraZeneca or the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine, individuals have very strong protection against severe disease, hospitalisation and death. Individuals in the top four priority groups account for 88% of coronavirus-related deaths. By 8th March these individuals will be protected against Covid-19, and the disease’s death rate will, roughly speaking, be reduced from one per cent to 0.12%. This is a death rate comparable to that of the flu, and never in the history of this country has that disease led to economic shutdowns or limits on social contact.

Opponents will object that the Sars-Cov-2 virus is far more contagious than the influenza virus, allowing infections to rise before the over-50s are vaccinated, a situation that could still overwhelm the NHS. However, with transmission reduced, critical-care capacity increasing, and the current wave declining, this looks like an unlikely scenario.

The top four priority groups account for 88% of deaths

Another objection is that if we allow infections to rise, it is possible that the virus will mutate and produce vaccine-resistant variants, which will jeopardise the entire vaccination effort.

The reality is that vaccine manufacturers are well prepared for this scenario, with BioNTech stating in December 2020 that a new vaccine could be developed within six weeks against the UK variant. Even if this were not the case, the truth is that there is no way for us to hide from variants forever – eventually, international travel will have to resume, and these variants can just as well come in from abroad if they do not originate here.

Vaccine manufacturers are well prepared

Our choice, therefore, is quite clear: to live with damaging restrictions on the basis of largely unjustified fears or to face up to the facts and be free at last. I know which side I fall on, and while I commend the Prime Minister for setting out an exit roadmap, I urge him to reflect on his comments regarding the restrictions in place and be much, much bolder in his approach.

Image by UK Prime Minister via Creative Commons

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