The Prime Minister is putting trust in the public’s judgement to prevent further Covid-19 outbreaks as he confirms plans to scrap mandatory face masks and social distancing rules.
All remaining lockdown restrictions will be lifted on the so-called “freedom day” in England on 19 July, despite Covid-19 cases continuing to rise.
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Learning to ‘live with’ Covid
Boris Johnson acknowledged in a Downing Street press conference on Monday (5 July) that the pandemic is “far from over” and noted that infections are increasing “fairly rapidly”.
Mr Johnson said there could be “50,000 cases detected per day by the 19th” and warned that hospital admissions are increasing, adding that more deaths are likely to come from Covid.
He said: “We have to balance the risks. The risks of the disease which the vaccines have reduced but very far from eliminated, and the risks of continuing with legally-enforced restrictions that inevitably take their toll on people’s lives and livelihoods, on people’s health and mental health.
“We must be honest with ourselves that if we can’t reopen our society in the next few weeks, when we will be helped by the arrival of summer and by the school holidays, then we must ask ourselves: when will we be able to return to normal?”
Mr Johnson added that the country must now learn to live with the virus, while continuing to “carefully manage the risks from Covid and exercise judgment when going about our lives.”
However, Professor Stephen Reicher, a member of the government’s member of the Scientific Pandemic Insights Group on Behaviours, warned there is a “very real risk prospect” that by the end of July there could be nearly a million cases per week.
Prof Reicher said that if infection rates do reach such high numbers “there is a risk of causing huge damage”, with young people being the worst affected as many are still not fully vaccinated.
He told Channel 4 News: “I think that’s a very big risk indeed, it’s not a risk I would take and I genuinely hope that I am wrong and it doesn’t happen but I wouldn’t be taking the risk.”
So why is the government still pressing ahead with lifting restrictions despite the obvious risks? Simply put, the Prime Minister has suggested it is now or never.
He explained that the continued effectiveness of the vaccine rollout is the only reason ministers are contemplating moving to Step 4 of the lockdown roadmap, and said now is a “propitious moment” to ease restrictions.
Mr Johnson also cited the difficulty of being able to open society back up in the colder autumn and winter months when seasonal respiratory viruses are more prevalent.
Chief scientific adviser Sir Patrick Vallance said the relaxation is not without risks, while England’s chief medical officer Professor Chris Whitty said he is of the “strong view” that a summer reopening “has some advantages” over autumn and warned that this winter “may be very difficult” for the NHS.
Will Covid ever be fully eradicated?
A paper from the Scientific Pandemic Influenza Group on Modelling, the Scientific Pandemic Insights Group on Behaviours (Spi-B) and Environmental Modelling Group (EMG) states that a package of “baseline” measures should be considered, as individual measures are likely to have limited impact.
The document says that close range transmission is likely to be the biggest individual exposure risk, so keeping some level of social distancing measures in place throughout summer and beyond would help to significantly reduce transmission.
It is noted that counties, such as New Zealand, that have near-zero Covid-19 have still kept some baseline measures in place, including wearing face masks on public transport. It is thought that such measures are beneficial in reducing the impact of any occasional outbreaks, suggesting the plan to lift all rules in England will likely result in a surge in cases.
But is it possible for Covid-19 to be eradicated completely? Andrew Lee, reader in global public health at the University of Sheffield, thinks not and expects the virus to remain part of life for many years to come.
Speaking to NationalWorld, Mr Lee explained: “That is the reality going forward. The virus will become endemic, just like other human flu viruses, and I anticipate that we will get seasonal outbreaks of coronavirus in the future.
“There is a rationale to the government’s decision to remove restrictions that I can see. Yes you are going to get some spread when measures are removed, but hopefully it won’t be as much with so many people vaccinated.
“What we need to accept is that we will never get to a situation of zero risk - as in a situation in which there is no virus.
“Even if you vaccinate 100 per cent of the population, you will still get vaccine failures because they are not 100 per cent effective. And you cannot vaccinate everyone because some people may have health conditions, while others choose not to get it.
“So there is always going to be a case where someone could still catch it, as is the case with other diseases like flu and German measles, and people who have been vaccinated still have risks.
“What the government is doing is taking a really realistic view of the risks and sadly I expect there will be further deaths.
“But you have to balance those risks. If you delay lockdown even further there are other harms to deal with as well, including psychological harm, mental health problems and unemployment.”
Mr Johnson has stressed that a final decision on the 19 July reopening will not be taken until next week and NHS Providers have urged him to “keep a very close watch” on the data in the days ahead.
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