What has the pandemic done to our understanding of risk?
Camilla Cavendish 7 hours ago
As the French saluted the return of café life this week, Joe Biden removed the requirement for vaccinated Americans to wear masks, and Brussels eased travel restrictions on foreigners, “Global Britain” got itself in a panic over a new covid variant. Despite having vaccinated more people per head than almost any other country, the government started to row back on its plans to open up. When a health minister proclaimed that “all travel is dangerous” I wondered, what has happened to our understanding of risk?
We are all figuring out how to navigate new freedoms, wondering if we can ever make small talk again, and whether to take the bus. We will be lost if we panic every time Covid-19 mutates. The world may eventually be unlucky enough to get a variant which outwits our vaccines. But until then, we need to get coronavirus in proportion. It is now the ninth most common cause of death in England and Wales behind diseases including heart disease and flu.
As the pandemic retreats, scientists and politicians are suffering an adverse reaction to the imminent waning of their own power. The airwaves have been filled with speculation that the variant first detected in India is highly transmissible, with few mentions of the fact that hospitalisations are still falling. Experts have intoned gravely that case numbers are rising dramatically in some places with large ethnic minority communities, and muttered that government should impose new lockdowns. But national case rates are stable, just as with the variants detected in South Africa and Brazil were. The signs are that this new variant will, like them, be containable locally.
What has happened to our legendary English scepticism? The UK government has a sensible plan to unlock gradually, and irreversibly, culminating on June 21. Every time it looks as if it will renege on that, it messes with our heads and with the economy. There is still no cost-benefit analysis of the impact of lockdowns on health and livelihoods.
When the public originally accepted unprecedented restrictions on liberty, it was to protect hospitals from being overwhelmed. That danger is past. England’s age-standardised death rate is now the lowest since records began in 2001, according to the Office for National Statistics. Last month, deaths were 6 per cent below the five-year average.
In these circumstances, it is unbelievable that ministers and unelected officials continue to use authoritarian language — and without a murmur from the public. Last year, we were supposed to be grateful to our government for having “saved Christmas”. Next month we will be expected to cheer being “unlocked” in a country in which Covid now represents a mere 2 per cent of all deaths. Boris Johnson warned this week that “you should not be going to an amber-list country on holiday”, although his “green” list includes no European country except Portugal, and returning travellers have to isolate at home for 10 days and take two tests, with the home secretary threatening they should expect police to “knock on the door”.
It is even more surprising that this language comes from a Conservative government, headed by a former libertarian. But no serious political party is any different. Labour’s shadow international trade secretary Emily Thornberry this week lost no time in calling for travel restrictions to be “much stricter”. I wonder how she thinks that will help international trade?
Scarred by having been slow to lock down after the virus first emerged, the top of government tries to salve its conscience by pledging eternal vigilance. But fighting the last war makes no sense. Britain is a global business hub, where one in four children has a foreign-born parent and most adults have had at least one jab. This government should
We will be lost if we panic at every Covid mutation