Britain’s Summer of Freedom Could Be Great

While Britain’s vaccination program has been going full-tilt, life in the country remains in suspended animation. A new strategy was overdue, but which one?

Many lawmakers in Boris Johnson’s Conservative Party have been demanding that he lift lockdown restrictions and reopen the economy. Infections, hospitalizations and deaths have been on a downward slope, helped by social distancing and perhaps seasonal effects. The argument is that Britain has plenty of headroom to lift restrictions and can’t afford to prolong a lockdown that has produced the deepest recession in three centuries and threatens to leave major economic and social scarring.

On the other end of the spectrum, proponents of a policy of “zero Covid” want Johnson to follow the example of New Zealand and effectively seek to eliminate the virus, just as we have with measles, mumps or tuberculosis. At a minimum that will require sticking with lockdowns longer and tightening border controls.

On Monday Johnson announced his long-awaited roadmap out of England’s self-incarceration. It places him conveniently — but wisely — in the middle of the two extremes. It’s too early to say whether he’s got the epidemiological approach right this time, but he has avoided some of the mistakes that doomed his two past reopening efforts to failure and he’s given Britons something to look forward to, even if it still seems quite a way off. 

The word that best summarizes the U.K.’s 60-page Covid-19 response paper isn’t one usually associated with this prime minister. It is, as Johnson kept repeating Monday, “cautious.” He doesn’t have much margin for error. A government that has presided over one of the world’s highest per capita death rates bears a special responsibility to tread carefully and get it right. Johnson won’t want to waste his “vaccine dividend,” and who can blame him? 

While children will return to school on March 8, life for adults will ease more gradually, with up to six people or two households able to meet again — outdoors only — from the end of March. The reopening of retail, hairdressers, gyms and outdoor hospitality is anticipated from April 12. Indoor hospitality and larger gatherings for events will have to wait until at least May 17, with remaining restrictions removed only on June 21.

The phased plan builds in buffers for four or more weeks between each stage so that the government can evaluate the Covid data and adjust timings if needed. Timing will be subject to four key tests that consider the success of the vaccination program, the rate of hospitalizations and deaths, the rate of infections and the existence of new variants.

By the middle of April, if there are no supply problems or other mishaps, Britain should have vaccinated all of its adults over 50. That practically eliminates the mortality risk from SARS-CoV-2.

It’s also encouraging that the first studies with real-world data — in Israel, Scotland and England — have confirmed the vaccines’ effectiveness against infection. While we still don’t have a full picture of how well they prevent transmission, those results bode well and will make people more comfortable about circulating again.

This positive news makes it harder for Johnson to resist the right-wingers in his party who want a faster reopening. Steve Baker — a Tory member of Parliament who was a prominent hardline Brexiter and is now a leading anti-lockdown campaigner — called Johnson’s roadmap a “hammer blow” to industries such as aviation, pubs, restaurants and hotels. The prime minister’s answer to that will lie partly in the support measures contained in Chancellor of the Exchequer Rishi Sunak’s budget next week.

With an 80-seat majority and Labour support for his lockdown measures, Johnson can afford for now to politely ignore Baker and his supporters. Given the government’s fatal tendency to reopen too quickly in previous phases of the pandemic, that’s a good thing.   

While Britain has suffered the worst slump of any advanced country, and its worst recession in three centuries, the roadmap is positive news for the economy. Bloomberg Economics’ Dan Hanson reckons even a cautious reopening will lead to a recovery that outpaces even the Bank of England forecast. It may even give the U.K. an edge against the European Union, whose vaccine program has been poor.

The Tories don’t face another national election for a few years, but Britain’s vaccine success and partial reopening provides a positive message going into May’s local elections, something that was unthinkable only a few months ago as the country grappled with a rampant outbreak. 

Cautious though the new strategy is, there are still ways it could go wrong. Sending all children back to school instead of staggering returns runs the risk of higher community transmission. The government is counting on frequent rapid diagnostic testing to identify cases as they emerge, so schools will test pupils twice per week. But, as Britain’s Liverpool pilot showed, these so-called lateral flow tests aren’t as sensitive as the gold-standard PCR tests — they more often miss infections and return false negatives. They were never intended for asymptomatic people, which includes most schoolkids.

Even with a gradual reopening, new variants could take hold faster than the vaccine rollout can prevent infections, or a mutation might prove vaccine resistant — Johnson’s biggest fear. Higher rates of vaccine refusal among younger people, who are next in line for the jabs, and ethnic minorities may keep the virus more active. Compliance with distancing measures may fall away.  

Nor will it be smooth sailing politically. Johnson has ordered a policy review into social-distancing measures that will have a big impact on the hospitality industry. A review of travel will have implications for tourism. And expect fireworks over a review into the domestic use of vaccine passports, or “Covid status certificates,” an issue that Johnson acknowledged is fraught with implications for fairness and privacy. How will younger people react if baby boomers — first in line for the shots — are free to roam, while millennials and Gen Z are told to stay home?

Johnson got the winter all wrong because of a lack of prudence. Thanks to the vaccinations and months of lockdown, he is now in a position to offer spring and summer as “seasons of hope.” Careful steps are the best way to get there. 

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Therese Raphael is a columnist for Bloomberg Opinion. She was editorial page editor of the Wall Street Journal Europe.

©2021 Bloomberg L.P.

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