With the advent of 2021 (happy new year!) and the Oxford vaccine finally receiving approval, many of us are wondering a simple – but difficult to answer – question: how soon until life gets back to normal?
Boris Johnson has said that Britain will “open up” by Easter. But many people want the Government to move much faster now that it has the tools to do so, and not least because of what’s happening in Israel.
The country has been administering its population with the first dose of the Pfizer/ BioNTech vaccine at the rate of 150,000 people per day, with it on track to have 10 per cent of its citizens covered by the weekend.
While the UK has some of the best figures in this regard, it looks comparatively slow next to those above. Take the stats for England in the week ending December 27, when 243,039 people received vaccinations, with the total number of recipients standing at 786,000 since December 8.
To add to the pressure for Matt Hancock, the Chief Executive of AstraZeneca said the company could supply two million vaccines per week, so all eyes are on the Government to see if it can distribute these – especially as pressure on the NHS continues to grow.
Can the Government do it? Clearly getting millions of vaccines out is no walk in the park, from arranging huge numbers of appointments at short notice with some of the oldest and most vulnerable members of the public, to having to monitor people afterwards for 15 minutes (to check for adverse reactions). But there are areas that the Government can quickly improve upon.
There are, for instance, huge bureaucratic barriers for vaccinator volunteers, who have had to provide 21 pieces of evidence, such as Prevent Radicalisation training, to help out with Coronavirus efforts. With over 25 million people on the priority list for a vaccine, there’s never been a better reason to cut the red tape.
The Government will also be expected to smooth over manufacturing inefficiencies, which have been blamed for a discrepancy in the number of Oxford University and AstraZeneca vaccines expected for the NHS this year (30 million doses) versus the reality (530,000) – a gap that need to be closed quickly to bring down hospital admissions.
To the Government’s credit, it has risen to enormous challenges throughout this pandemic. Ministers were able to ramp up Coronavirus tests from nothing to hundreds of thousands per day, in an achievement that is often overlooked, and there are signs of vital progress on the vaccine front.
British military medics have been put on standby to vaccinate up to 700,000 people per week, and the Government has also switched its inoculation plan. Originally, the idea was to give two doses 21 days apart, but now a two-dose vaccine will be administered as one jab initially – to give as many as possible of the vulnerable some protection (with a second dose administered four to 12 weeks later).
Although some GPs have been unhappy about this idea, the UK’s chief medical officers have defended the strategy, writing in a joint letter: “We have to follow public health principles and act at speed if we are to beat this pandemic, which is running rampant in our communities, and we believe the public will understand and thank us for this decisive action.”
It’s innovation, as much as speed, that the Government needs to speed up its vaccination programme. No idea is off limits, with many people already placing suggestions on Twitter – even that pubs could be used as vaccination hubs – to get the UK moving faster out of lockdown.
Pubs could be turned into vaccination hubs. There’s space. There’s staff. There’s fridges. There’s refreshment facilities. There’s one in every village. Allocate people a pub and a date, a bit like a polling station. Then the same three weeks later.
— Keir Shiels (@keirshiels) December 30, 2020
In order to ease restrictions, the Government is working towards two goals. First, it needs to rapidly cut down hospitalisations, so that the NHS is no longer overwhelmed, which will mean it’s far safer to lift measures.
The second is to achieve population immunity, meaning “the virus has nowhere left to run.” Scientists have predicted that we could need anything from 60 to 80 per cent of the population vaccinated to achieve this, although it ultimately depends on what the next few months tell us about transmission. The ideal scenario is that the vaccine not only protects vulnerable members of society, but quickly stops the spread of the virus. This could have a dramatic impact on when restrictions go.
In the mean time, it makes sense for the Government to hold Easter up as the date for reopening the economy, not least because it will be warmer then – with less scope for people mixing indoors (where the virus spreads more easily). The Government no doubt feels more confident, based on last year’s seasonal patterns, that it will be easier to open then, vaccine or not – and plans to phase out the furlough scheme in April. Until then, ministers will have one of the busiest new years on record trying to make “Operation Get Back to Normal” a reality.