When the eventual inquiry into government’s response to the pandemic takes place, it will ask why testing and tracing didn’t really get going until late April. The answer seems to be that the state had planned for the wrong pandemic – preparing for a flu epidemic to which part of the response would be attempts to reach herd immunity.
(Remember Matt Hancock’s frantic response in March to Patrick Vallance’s suggestion that aiming for it was part of the Government’s strategy.)
At any rate, the Health Secretary announced on April 2 the Government’s intention of aiming for 100,000 tests a day by the end of that month. From then on, test and trace was the main pillar of Boris Johnson’s anti-Covid plan. There was admiration in the media at the time for Germany which, of countries comparable to Britain, had come closest to emulating test and trace’s success in parts of the Far East.
There were two possible alternative strategies. The first was a more voluntarist approach along the lines of Sweden’s. The second was more lockdowns.
It is easy to see why the latter was unsustainable. It offered the prospect of a cycle of winter shutdowns and summer loosenings until vaccines arrived, or the virus lost its potency, or herd immunity was achieved (if possible). It then became evident during the autumn that test and trace was simply not delivering to the required standard: too few people were being traced, and too few were self-isolating.
The consequence was an erosion of faith on the Conservative backbenches in test and trace, and a growing interest in some kind of Swedish solution – as lives as well as livelihoods were damaged by the combination of lockdowns, restrictions and the Coronavirus itself.
One can see this from the rising backbench rebellions chronicled on this site. Seven Tory MPs voted against renewing the Covid-19 regulations on October 1. On November 4, 32 opposed shutdown. On December 2, 53 voted against the tiering plan. This site and others called for a cost benefit analysis of the Government’s policy.
Conservative backbenchers are displeased not to have been given the chance to vote on the new tier four and three provisions. Charles Walker has accused the Government of seeking to duck Parliamentary scrutiny.
The Covid Recovery Group has suggested that the Commons return, and William Wragg made the case for a recall on this site yesterday – correctly, in our view. There is little confidence in parts of the Parliamentary Party in the Government’s scientific advisers since mistaken figures were used to help make the case for the second lockdown in November (and in some cases earlier).
Why, then, do we write this morning, as the whole country faces the prospect of a third lockdown almost as severe as the first, that the high point of rebellions against shutdown may have been reached, and that the impetus of these seems to be weakening?
There are three main reasons. First, the imminent arrival of vaccines has changed the political weather. There is a sense at Westminster, and a hope more widely, that Britain will soon be moving back towards the old normal. The speed at which this happens may be much slower than some seem to expect – given the uncertainties about rollout, take-up and efficacy.
Nonetheless, it has been bracing to see Britain leading the international pack on vaccine provision after months of seeing a worse record of deaths per head than most other European countries.
The second is the new strain of the virus. There is much that isn’t known about it, but it is more infectious than the old one, which has implications for hospitalisations. One can argue the toss endlessly about whether or the NHS will not come under exceptional winter pressure. (Some Conservative MPs report that in their areas the situation are no worse than usual.)
However, it can’t be proved that it won’t, and given the new strain of the virus a larger number of backbenchers than previously will be unwilling to take chances. Patients admissions have risen since September, dipped earlier this month and are now rising again.
Finally, as Charlotte Gill wrote on this site yesterday, Sweden is struggling with the “second wave” of the virus. The country’s more voluntarist approach still has its admirers. But the struggle of Stockholm regions hospitals to cope supports a broader narrative of nothing anywhere working – to put very crudely what some MPs and others feel.
France’s second lockdown is only now in the early stages of being lifted. Germany is in a shutdown and schools have closed. We think that most of our fellow citizens glimpse this wider picture.
YouGov finds that its poll respondents mostly believe the Government has handled the virus badly but nonetheless support the new measures. That sounds about right. There will certainly be more backing for Johnson among the apolitical population than among the Twitter partisans – and the Conservatives still lead in the polls (just).
On this site in October, Raghib Ali set out “an alternative strategy which may cause less overall harm based on the Swedish approach, but with much better protection of the vulnerable, especially in care homes”.
The long and short of it is that the vaccine, and perhaps the new Covid variant too, have rendered this approach outdated (as he would be the first to admit). To attempt breakout from a ceaseless cycle of lockdowns and loosenings might well have made sense. But there is little point in suddenly applying it before the mass of the vaccine roll-out rather than gradually as it happens.
Sure, the Government could attempt a kind of Great Barrington Declaration Squared approach for a few months – further confusing voters, letting the death and injury toll rise, and risking the collapse of the NHS (plus the shutting down again of much of its non-Covid capacity).
Indeed, we would risk ending up with the worst of both worlds – a risk to the NHS, and a rise in deaths, without significant economic recovery. For if the new Coronavirus strain continues to accelerate, people will socially distance more – whatever the Government may say.
We will need persuading that a third lockdown, this time almost as severe as the first, is really required across the whole country – since, as Ali has pointed out, the fall in cases began before it was brought in.
But that is beside a bigger point, which is that the current direction of travel seems set: further restrictions this winter, a springtime loosening, and then we hope an autumn and winter in which the vaccination programme begins to take effect. As Margaret Thatcher once put it, There Is No Alternative – despite the further loss of life and damage to livelihoods that lies ahead of us as well as behind.