“There’s no going back”, were the words of Sajid Javid, the Health Secretary, in June this year when he was asked about the possibility of more lockdowns.
At yesterday’s press conference, however, members of the media seemed to have other ideas. As Javid laid out the Government’s Plan A – to deal with the challenging winter months ahead – he was grilled on whether harsher restrictions should be introduced. There’s been growing alarm around the number of people testing positive for Covid in the UK, which has recently risen to over 40,000 daily cases, and whether the Government should act faster now.
It is banking on a vaccine booster programme to weather the winter storm. Plan A involves offering additional Covid jabs to around 30 million people, offering healthy 12 and 15-year-olds a single vaccine dose, as well as freely distributing PCR and lateral flow tests. Another important element of Plan A is encouraging free flu jab take-up, as this is something that can put a huge strain on the NHS.
Key to Plan A’s success, as far as the Government is concerned, is public compliance. “We’ve got the jabs, we need the arms to put them in”, said Javid. The message was clear: do your part and we won’t need tougher restrictions. It’s one that the public has heard a few times before.
In general, anyone watching might have had a sense of déjà vu about the Conference. It is not the first time the Government has been optimistic about dealing with winter pressures (we all remember Christmas last year). Similarly, media questions have hardly changed, often hinting that the most drastic interventions should be quickly introduced.
So what can we expect in the months ahead? The big unknown variable is how the NHS will cope with Covid cases and flu, the latter of which is likely to be particularly troublesome – due to people’s immune systems not having been exposed to winter bugs under lockdown. At the same time, the NHS will have to deal with a huge backlog of patients who weren’t seen under pandemic conditions.
However, we have also seen radically improved treatments for Covid-19. Not does the UK have an excellent supply of vaccines, but new drugs have been developed to combat the virus. The Government’s antivirals taskforce has secured 480,000 courses of Molnipiravir, for instance, which – in trials – has reduced the risk of hospitalisation or death for at-risk non-hospitalised adults with mild to moderate symptoms by 50 per cent. This is an extraordinary achievement, which will make the winter months easier.
It doesn’t seem completely out of the question that the Government might have to escalate its measures – should the NHS find itself under strain for the aforementioned reasons – but it’s worth remembering that Plan B is not as drastic as it has been portrayed. It includes mandatory face coverings and advice for people to work from home, for instance. Perhaps its most controversial element is mandatory vaccine passports, but overall, it is not as strict as some of the initial lockdowns.
And so, the Government has given itself leeway here; presenting Plan B as the tough option. It is something it can introduce, should the calls for it get louder, much more easily than initial lockdown instructions. Around the promise of there being “no going back”, Javid may be able to stick to his word.