Britain’s vaccine success was supposed to lead to freedom. What happened?

Britain’s vaccine success was supposed to lead to freedom. What happened?

10 April 2021

9:00 AM

10 April 2021

9:00 AM

In November, when cases were surging and a second lockdown was under way, Boris Johnson made a big promise: things might look bleak, he said, but the ‘scientific cavalry’ would arrive. It duly did, with a vaccination programme that became the envy of Europe. The mood of the country lifted. Today, Britain is still on course to become the first country in Europe to vaccinate its way out of the pandemic — and lockdown. The economy can reopen in time for summer: truly a great escape.

Science achieved the seemingly impossible. Produced in record time, Covid vaccines are proving more effective than most predicted. In Britain, cases and deaths have fallen by 95 per cent since the latest peak, a stunning descent. British immunity levels have surged: roughly half of Brits are estimated to have antibodies to Covid, according to the Office for National Statistics. In December, it was just 13 per cent. Economists predicted the vaccine factor would give Britain a competitive edge in its economic bounce back — but in November no one would have been so bold as to imagine that the cavalry would arrive in such numbers, with such force, and to such effect.

So science has delivered. But politics has not. With each success, the official return to normality seems to slip further away. As the country headed into its third lockdown, the Prime Minister promised that the most vulnerable would be vaccinated by mid-February and Britain would be open by Easter weekend. The first part happened — the second did not. The ‘roadmap’ to freedom extended lockdown — in various forms — until 21 June. But the PM left the hardest decisions for later reviews. This week, we got the first teasers on the future of social distancing, international travel and ID cards. It appears we’ll have to live with yet more muddling Covid rules and regulations for longer. There’s no end in sight.

Optimism is vanishing. Just a few months ago, cabinet members were ready to translate vaccine success into a springtime push for national liberation. Matt Hancock told this magazine in January that he would personally ‘cry freedom’ once the most vulnerable were jabbed. In the same month, Grant Shapps pledged to join ‘the barricades to get our freedoms back’ once a similar target was hit. Nadhim Zahawi, the vaccines minister, angrily dismissed talk of a dystopian world of vaccine passports as fantasy. They’d be ‘discriminatory’, he said.

It’s strange how quickly things move from unthinkable to unstoppable. Now, all of a sudden, 21 June has been transformed: from the day we return to normal to the possible start of another ‘new normal’. Further crackdowns on international travel and domestic vaccine passports are all on the cards: a fundamental shift in the understanding of the role of the state and the rights of the individual. The liberty to go about daily life may now come with conditions — even when the virus is under control. Precisely who can participate in which daily activities may be regulated using new digital tools.

Back in December, the government told us (correctly) that vaccines work. But by February, a big panic had struck the government: what if a new variant crept in and put us back to square one? Like all RNA viruses, Sars-CoV-2 mutates, and so far none of its variants has been able to escape the vaccines. Some trials have raised questions: including early data showing the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine losing some effectiveness in preventing mild illness. This changed everything: fear of a new variant broke the link between vaccination and freedom.

This is the mindset of the new ‘travel taskforce’, which has crafted a ‘traffic light’ system for international travel — the system upon which so much of the UK economy depends. The B.1.351 variant which originated in South Africa has the committee spooked: that Pfizer found an early trial of its vaccine to be 100 per cent effective against the variant is welcome news to the committee, but it is not enough. ‘It’s not obvious there’s any amount of data that will satisfy,’ says one taskforce insider. ‘Especially with so much focus on a hypothetical variant.’

So we may end up this summer with more stringent travel rules than last year (when there were no jabs on offer). Even fully vaccinated travellers would have to pay for multiple negative Covid tests over the course of their trip. Brits fly more than citizens of any other country (or they did, before the pandemic). Tourism generates 9 per cent of the UK economy and supports two million jobs (or did). What will the hit to our economy be? Strikingly, the travel taskforce has done no economic assessment about the impact on the domestic economy or on the consumer. You might argue that it’s cheaper than another lockdown, but even that case hasn’t been made. Johan Lundgren, who runs easyJet, has noted that in many instances the tests could cost more than the flights. Meanwhile, it’s impossible to measure the emotional toll this takes on those who are separated from their loved ones.

Official thinking has it that such costs pale in comparison to the price of securing freedom at home. This, too, represents a dramatic change in approach. Once, government taskforce proposals would have to face robust scrutiny: what is the breakdown of the economic costs? When might this end? Is the travel quarantine system intended to last until everyone is vaccinated — or perhaps long after?

A new official mindset is emerging that believes vaccines simply aren’t enough; the cavalry can’t succeed on its own. We now get weekly updates from the Prime Minister and his officials which come dangerously close to playing down the jabs. The vaccines aren’t 100 per cent effective, we’re told repeatedly: an objectively true statement which is being given undue emphasis. No one ever expected a foolproof vaccine, and the jabs we’re using are currently thought to be nearly 100 per cent effective in preventing serious illness and death. Yet just last week Johnson doubled down on the caution, insisting that two fully vaccinated people mustn’t meet inside because ‘vaccines are not giving 100 per cent protection’.

Such language may be designed to ensure continued compliance with the Covid rules. But it’s a shortsighted tactic, since it saps confidence in the vaccine. It also has implications for the economic recovery, which needs people to have faith in the jab, to feel protected and, as Rishi Sunak put it, ‘live without fear’.

The mission creep is striking. At first, we had to ‘flatten the curve’ to protect the NHS from being overwhelmed. In January, Hancock dismissed the idea that restrictions would stay once the at-risk had been vaccinated. ‘Sadly, there are many illnesses in the world and we have to live our lives,’ he said. On such logic, the roadmap had a clear end in sight. But if the government permanently emphasises the narrative that vaccines aren’t enough, it will continue to justify the need for restrictions.

Who will bear the brunt of them? That will largely depend on how far the government decides to take its most intrusive new Covid proposal: the implementation of vaccine passports or ‘Covid status certification’. ‘I certainly am not planning to issue any vaccine passports and I don’t know anyone else in government who would,’ Michael Gove said in December. Gove is now leading the charge to bring them in, with the roadmap reviews, and has ‘committed’ to exploring how they could be used, whether for trips to the pub or to attend mass events.

It wasn’t just Gove who ruled out compulsory ID cards to resume normal life: Hancock shot down the idea in January on principle (Britain is ‘not a papers-carrying country’, he said). Zahawi told Sky News that ministers ‘have absolutely no plans for vaccine passporting’, branding the concept ‘absolutely wrong’. It’s the strength of such denials that makes things so hard to predict now. If the goalposts are being moved this regularly, how can businesses prepare? The hospitality sector is already railing against the idea of passes, describing the extra burden of checking them and turning away customers as a Hobson’s choice.

The NHS contact-tracing app was sold to the public last year as a temporary and completely private tool. Officials are now considering repurposing it as a biosecurity card in which one’s health status is uploaded and shared. All necessary to ‘reopen the economy’. Employers may be asked to demand such a card from staff. Those without one may not be hired. There’s even talk of face scanning to make us free.

Little explanation has been offered as to why — with working vaccines and surging immunity — life needs to stay so abnormal. In private, ministers point to opinion polls which support vaccine passports and lockdown in general as justification. But it’s not yet clear, in practice, if their plans for ‘normal’ are what the public had in mind. In public, there is now talk of a third wave. Chile has become the prime example of how even a highly vaccinated country can have things go badly wrong. Could that happen here? Has Chile’s reliance on China’s Sinovac jab — estimated to have one of the lowest efficacy rates for approved vaccines — been factored in? Do current models take into account our highly successful jabs, as compared with previous models which assumed lower protection? If restrictions remain, can the public be told exactly what criteria need to be met? That would be a level of transparency the government hasn’t achieved since the pandemic hit.

‘Open safely’ is the new catchphrase. That is how the review says our freedoms are to be restored, and how it justifies biosecurity cards. Our pre-Covid life, it seems, was not safe enough. Liberty, as we knew it, came at too high a cost. The latest official paper suggests that social distancing may not have an end date, even once Britain’s adult population is fully vaccinated.

The debate isn’t just about Covid any more. It’s about the kind of country we want to live in after the pandemic. That should be an interesting debate: do we think our old ways were just too open, too liberal, too carefree? Might a more regulated, digitised and health-checked future be preferable? Are vaccine passports an infringement of civil liberty, or a common sense way of minimising risks from future pandemics? Should Britain use its vaccine success to follow the drawbridge-up approach of Australia, or the digital security apparatus used in Israel?

All of these questions are legitimate, even necessary. But they ought not to be decided by roadmaps or reviews designed by committees on the sidelines and pushed through parliament without proper debate. The decisions taken in the next few months will shape the economy and the future of the country for years, perhaps decades. It’s time to start the discussion.

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