Boris Johnson’s use of apocalyptic demons to aid his survival in office knows no limit. Since his near-death experience of “partygate”, he has shamelessly exploited war, floods and pestilence. All have responded. Pestilence is now his greatest ally. The decision announced today to end all remaining pandemic restriction measures in England goes flatly against his more cautious advisers and appears highly political. That does not make it wrong.
The prime duty of government is to protect people from death and disease. After two years of Covid, the most basic measure of that protection is the “excess death rate” from all causes. In England this is now negative, that is, running below the seasonal norm, while Covid-related hospitalisations across the entire UK are falling fast. The crisis is over. Were Covid not in the air, mass testing for, say, infectious flu would seem an excessive precaution, given the government’s claims that it costs an astronomical £2bn a month. Whether this continues apparently remains a matter of argument.
It is true that excess deaths also fell a year ago before the return of Covid via the Omicron variant, a return not remotely as serious as previous variants. It was countered by the clearly effective remedy of vaccination. Nonetheless, the return was enough for “the science” to challenge Johnson’s decision to end quarantine requirements and scale back mass testing. He is determined to “return to normal” after two years of national disruption, leaving individuals and organisations to make their own judgments on caution, as with other diseases. Yes, he says, it is a risk, but his job is to judge risks, and sometimes to take them.
In this case Johnson is surely right. Leaving aside vaccination – unquestioned hero of the hour – the external cost of the Covid lockdown has been unquantifiable but appalling. In medicine alone, cancers have gone unreported, with other illnesses untreated and mental health neglected. The money spent on lockdown compensation, much of it reckless and some even corrupt, has been denied to other welfare uses. The cost to child welfare is inestimable, as has been the cost to education.
It is, of course, possible that ending mandatory self-isolation may lead to another upturn, though whether this should justify a return of lockdown must be doubted. Support for the clinically vulnerable should remain, and be shored up with new resources. More to the point is that the government – and the country – should now be able to turn its resources and attention to recovering from Covid’s wider damage to the nation’s welfare caused over the past two years.
It is worrying how rarely those pleading for continued lockdown refer to this damage. It is as if because a cost is unquantifiable in the short term it does not exist. Too often scientists sound like just another interest group out to protect its reputation and budget. As Neil Ferguson’s Imperial College London modelling group were quoted as admitting: “We do not consider the wider social and economic costs of suppression.” It is why Sweden’s decision to avoid a draconian lockdown merits serious analysis. Its GDP fell by 2.9%, Britain’s by 9.4%. In the European league tables Sweden falls around the middle in deaths per capita, still well below Britain.
Experts should be on tap, not on top. They should be listened to but not obeyed. We vote for politicians to rule us and no one else, thank goodness. Now Johnson can get back to his other demons, still dancing attendance at his door.