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Thursday, September 16, 2021

The real significance of Boris Johnson’s Covid winter plan is what was left unsaid

They couldn’t very well have announced that there was no Plan B, could they? That would have been hubris of an unthinkable kind. So this was pretty much optimum both in practical and political terms: it would appease, for the moment, those in Parliament and outside it who wanted life to return to normal without any further delay but it would also offer some reassurance to that idiosyncratic minority who are apparently so terrified that they would have liked lockdown to last forever. 

There may have been deliberate vagueness about what precisely would trigger the return of mandatory face masks, advice to work from home and – most contentious – the introduction of the dreaded vaccine passports, but surely that was understandable. As Chris Whitty made clear, there would have to be consideration of a number of carefully balanced factors, but he came closer than anyone to making the criteria explicit. It would be the number of hospital admissions and the speed of the increase in that number plus the ratio of deaths to hospital admissions that would be most critical. 

There could be no absolute figures at this point but the object was, above all, “to prevent the overwhelming of the NHS” which would also be facing its usual winter pressures.

This sounds reasonable – even though it does, once more, seem to imply rather oddly that the NHS is more important than the people it serves. But this presentation was hard to fault even by those of us of a libertarian orientation. Keeping mandatory face masks, vaccine passports and advice to work from home as “shots in the locker”, as the prime minister put it, available if really required but only to be used with reluctance: what more could we ask for at this tenuous point when, as the scientists kept emphasising, we really do not know what will happen next? 

What was notable was the absence of some much more drastic things that might have been in the locker – that could have made Plan B so much more alarming. No lockdown, no shutting of “all but essential” retail outlets, no return to a “rule of six”, no closing down of schools, no telling children that they must not hug their grandparents or elderly people in care homes that they must not have visitors. So no – the real horrors were not even on the horizon. They did not merit a glancing reference. 

What was still not absolutely clear was precisely what was meant by that magical phrase, “learning to live with the virus”. When exactly does an unprecedented pandemic disease become endemic and part of the expected landscape of healthcare provision? 

If this is anything more than a semantic distinction – if it has real scientific meaning – then it ought to be possible to answer those questions with precision. But the Government’s reluctance to answer them may be legitimate enough. As ministers keep saying when they justify their decision to vaccinate children, there is more to this than dealing with the immediate threat to individuals of getting the virus: there is the wider context of life chances, economic opportunity and national morale. 

This isn’t just about medical judgment. It is about politics and moral choices. Boris Johnson stressed repeatedly that the Government was now ready to trust the good sense and responsibility of people themselves to make the right judgments – and isn’t that what we have been asking for? 

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