Why Boris Johnson must resist the pressure by libertarians of all types and stripes to lift all Covid-19 lockdown restrictions early.
First published in February 2021.
You may have seen it, heard it, read it, the narrative in the media in the past week has been that “vaccination is behind the fall in infections.” That would be great if only it were true.
Just a few days ago, The Times claimed that ministers had already been given early data showing that vaccination is cutting illness by around two-thirds, and cutting hospital admissions and deaths in elderly people.
The Daily Mail also wrote that “High Street shops will be allowed to reopen within weeks if Covid infection rates keep dropping.” How? Well, the tabloid explained that “plans to ease lockdown were boosted yesterday by figures showing the dramatic impact vaccines are already having.”
Sky News’ Economics Editor Ed Conway tweeted on Monday: “Further evidence the UK vaccination programme might be working: the case fatality rate for over 80s has now dropped by 35% since early Jan. (Case Fatality Rates) of those aged under 80 are down 5%.”
On air, he took a closer look at the effect the vaccine rollout might be having on cases and deaths, and concluded that the falling figures “are the earlier signs that the vaccinations are having an effect.”
As the UK media seemed to confirm that the vaccination programme is behind the fall in infections in the UK, the very libertarians who have previously happily led us to Brexit started to feel empowered by the media and journalists’ claims, and entitled to put pressure on Prime Minister Boris Johnson and his government to reopen the country, from schools to gyms, bar, and restaurants by Easter.
The likes of Steve Baker MP and members of the Covid Recovery Group of anti-lockdown Tories (which claims it has the backing of 63 Tory MPs) had previously written a letter to the PM demanding that once the top 9 priority groups of most vulnerable people had been vaccinated all Covid measures should be dropped.
Their demand was then flatly rejected by the government.
They even launched an online campaign with colourful banners, videos, and hashtags to promote their irresponsible and unscientific insistence that the country must reopen as soon as possible.
Invited on the radio, invited on TV, this fringe group of libertarians found its way through the media, in the same way the ERG did during the Brexit crisis, and faced no challenge by any journalists.
And we sadly have already watched that film before…
What’s the evidence?
So, what is the evidence behind those claims by the UK media that the vaccination programme is responsible for the current fall in Covid-19 infections?
A new modelling study published in Anaesthesia (the journal of the Association of Anaesthetists) does predict that the UK’s coronavirus vaccination programme will reduce daily deaths. The model predicts that with most of groups 1-4 vaccinated, daily deaths will reduce by some 88% by the second half of March, whilst hospital admissions will fall by 66% and ICU admissions by only 36%.
The authors, however, admit that the model includes a certain number of assumptions and, therefore, represents a best-case scenario.
This week a Public Health England spokesman said: “It is too early to draw firm conclusions from our surveillance programme.
“We have been analysing the data since the start of the vaccination programme rollout and will publish our findings in due course.”
Boris Johnson himself said: “Although the vaccination programme is going well, we still don't have enough data about the exact effectiveness of the vaccine in reducing the spread of infection.”
The lockdown effect
Recently, most European countries have also been experiencing either a decrease or a plateau in their Covid-19 infections. Their vaccine rollout, however, has not been as strong as the UK’s. The EU data is another sign that lockdown or curfew (as in France) seem to be responsible for lower infections in the 27 overall, not the vaccines.
In the UK, the latest findings from the Real-time Assessment of Community Transmission programme (REACT) at Imperial College London – the biggest study of community coronavirus testing based on swab tests taken by almost 85,000 people – disproved the media claims:
“Since December 2020, the UK government has rolled out a vaccination programme to categories of individuals considered the most at risk for severe infection and death. These categories are mainly age-based, with nearly all people of 70 years and over being offered the vaccine during January and February 2021. However the fall in prevalence was similar among those aged 65 years and over compared with other age groups, suggesting that if vaccines are effective at reducing transmission as well as disease, this effect is not yet a major driver of prevalence trends. Therefore, the observed falls described here are most likely due to reduced social interactions during lockdown.”
Professor Paul Elliott, director of the programme, said: “These encouraging results show that lockdown measures are effectively bringing infections down. It’s reassuring that the reduction in numbers of infections occurred in all ages and in most regions across the country.
“While the trends we’ve observed are good news, we need to all work to keep infections down by sticking to the measures which are designed to protect us and our health system.”
In a nutshell, it is more sensible to keep the restriction measures, for now, to see the infections hopefully decrease further.
Professor Steven Riley, Professor of Infectious Disease Dynamics at Imperial, also said: “The downwards trend in the most recent REACT data is good news. If this can be maintained, the pressure on the NHS will be greatly reduced, resulting in fewer hospital admissions and deaths.”
The uniform decrease in age groups simply means one thing: there is absolutely no evidence that the UK vaccination programme is behind the fall in Covid-19 infections. The researchers would expect to see a bigger drop in people aged 65 and over to say otherwise. It is just not happening.
Not there yet…
We are not yet seeing the decrease in the number of Covid-19 infections expected from the vaccines, but in the meantime, it is encouraging to see that the current lockdown restrictions are working.
Lockdowns are not the solution to the Covid pandemic. They only mean that we (our governments) have been unable to find any other way to stop the coronavirus from spreading among us.
But it would now be irresponsible to reopen everything when we are still unsure how the new variants are going to affect infection, hospitalization and death in our community. Some experts in Europe and in Canada already expect that a new wave of infections could hit many countries in March or April, driven by the new variants. Allowing for schools and the hospitality industry to return to ‘normal’ by that time could send the UK infection rate over the roof.
According to Dr Joe Pajak’s latest Covid-19 UK data chart, reopening now would mean reopening at a level of infection, hospitalisation and death that was the peak of our first wave, in March 2020. How absurd!
Challenged by the fringe of libertarians in his party, the pro- herd immunity scientists, and other anti-lockdown celebrities, all crying out for the government to define what they call an “acceptable level of coronavirus deaths” so they and their friends can enjoy their “individual freedom” whilst the rest of the society lives — and dies! (What country have we become, my friends?) — with the coronavirus, it is down to Boris Johnson, once again, to take the right decision.
The PM must base his judgement on data and the correct interpretation of the evidence available — not baseless claims, ambiguous data or disingenuous interpretations. With lockdown, not vaccinations, the driving force behind the recent fall of infections and with only 573,724 people fully vaccinated (two doses) so far — only 1.09% of UK adults — the PM must resist the pressure by libertarians of all types and stripes to lift all Covid-19 lockdown restrictions early. We still have a long way to go to beat this virus.
Vaccines will eventually provide the solution to the coronavirus pandemic in time. Until then Boris Johnson must not allow the zealots to steer us away from saving lives and protecting the NHS, and instead lead us to a smooth exit out of lockdown when the time is right.
“Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.”
— Carl Sagan (1934-1996)
- REACT-1 round 9 interim report | Imperial College London
▫ J.N. PAQUET, Editor of PMP Magazine.
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🗳️ Steve Baker
[This piece was originally published in [the brief] and re-published in PMP Magazine on 19 February 2021, with the author’s consent. | The author writes in a personal capacity.]
(Cover: Flickr/Number 10. - Boris Johnson in Downing Street. | 10 February 2020. / Licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.)