Leading article

Ring out, wild bells: 2021 will be a year of renewal

19 December 2020

9:00 AM

19 December 2020

9:00 AM

Save for those old enough to have lived through the second world war and its immediate austere aftermath, it would be hard to remember a Christmas which felt less festive. Or a new year that brings such foreboding. In spite of the severe restraints on our lives, which have been in place for months now, it seems likely that we will see some sort of third coronavirus wave with a third lockdown also on the cards. And at the same time, Britain will be embarking on a Brexit adventure that many people still see as reckless and unwanted.

Yet if we look a little beyond the immediate future, things begin to appear brighter. Not just because of the vaccine, but because of what the crisis says about our values and expectations: we accepted the restrictions because we value life more nowadays, and expect to live longer, healthier lives.

Think back half a century to the Hong Kong flu of 1968, which took more lives, per capita, than Covid-19 has so far. Life expectancy in the UK then was 71.7 years. It’s 81.4 years now. If Covid had struck just half a century ago, there would have been far fewer octogenarians and nonagenarians to protect.

The fact that the average age of a Covid fatality was 82 did not lessen the seriousness with which the virus has been treated, right across Europe. Yes, lives were saved at a huge economic cost — but it may not prove to be a permanent cost.

The Office for Budget Responsibility recently produced two scenarios for next year. The bleaker scenario sees Britain trapped in a cycle of lockdown-and-release, never quite getting ahead of the virus and suffering permanent economic scarring.

The best-case scenario sees the vaccine rolled out quickly, and the economy back on its feet by summer. According to this version of the future, the country will soon end up no poorer than if the virus had never struck, with the economic damage entirely made good.

This upbeat scenario is plausible. Until Covid’s second wave, the economy was recovering faster than predicted, as a result of the resourcefulness, resilience and enterprise of the public. Rishi Sunak’s ‘eat out to help out’ scheme captured the public spirit. People sitting on record amounts of saved money were anxious to spend locally and restore economies. That pent-up demand is there still. People are waiting for the signal — not just to spend, but to support local business; to live in community with each other.

We might not have long to wait. Professor Jonathan Van-Tam, the deputy chief medical officer, has observed that his ‘priority list’ for vaccination — essentially the over-50s and certain at-risk groups — will protect 99 per cent of those likely to die from the virus. When this group has been vaccinated, in phase one, it will present the government with an interesting choice. Should we keep locking down until the rest of the country has been vaccinated? Or should we start to resume normal life once the most at risk have been protected?

Boris Johnson ought to be thinking very carefully about this, as it could be the most important question of next year. He should ask his officials to work out what the implications for the NHS would be if restrictions were lifted once the at-risk groups and over-fifties are protected. It’s a difficult question, especially as just over a third of those admitted to hospital with Covid are under the age of 65. This virus certainly affects the young. But so does lockdown, unemployment and educational mayhem. Then there is the issue of ‘long Covid’, which deserves more serious attention than it has so far received. It is, as always, about a balance of risk.

Leaving the European Union, too, was always going to be fraught with risk — but this was known when 52 per cent of the country voted for it. Perhaps the biggest risk is whether the powers retrieved from Brussels will be used well or badly in Westminster. Brexit was never, in itself, going to transform Britain; it is simply the removal of a constraint. All depends on what Johnson now does, and he will be judged by the result.

That Britain has been the first country to approve, and start administering, the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine is a promising sign for our future outside the EU. While the approval process made use of emergency powers which existed during our EU membership, our own Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency has shown itself to be flexible and adaptable. In addition, the government has been working on huge changes to how it procures goods and services, in order to escape the EU system that makes everything so complicated and expensive. This could save many billions.

So amid the uncertainty about what the new year holds, there is plenty of reason for hope. In Tennyson’s ‘In Memoriam’, he describes the new year bells as the sound of renewal. ‘Ring out old shapes of foul disease,’ he writes, ‘Ring in the thousand years of peace.’ It may be too much to hope for a millennium of peace, but the foul disease that’s blighted this year will be rung out soon.

This Christmas will be subdued. No carols or busy congregations. Some may choose to spend it alone. But even so we can celebrate the arrival of light into the world, and next year, the work of repair can begin.

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