James Cartlidge: Our boldness is creating hope, says MP
On 18th March last year, the Prime Minister made a statement to the country confirming that schools would be shut ‘until further notice’. That decision was soon followed by the unprecedented legally mandated closure of businesses, pubs and society more generally – the sort of thing most of us would never have expected to witness in our lifetimes. Twelve months on and many readers will understandably be frustrated at the cautious approach we are taking to easing lockdown; we are all surely desperate to see our full freedoms restored.
Nevertheless, we mustn’t lose sight of how fortunate we are to be easing so significantly over the days ahead, a process that commenced with last week’s reopening of all schools to all pupils, not just the children of keyworkers. I well remember the relatively contentious situation that pertained when schools were first reopened beyond keyworker families in early summer last year. I argued very strongly that the cost of keeping children out of school outweighed the relatively small health risks of having classrooms fully functioning.
Of course, this debate was blown open again when in early winter the ‘Kent’ variant exploded, with extremely high rates of spread in the East of England, leading inevitably to a return to full lockdown and on-campus schooling once again restricted to children of keyworkers.
I say that our position is ‘fortunate’ because it’s worth stressing how a dangerous new wave of infection seems to be emerging on the continent. It sounds like the strain that hit us hard is now rapidly infecting communities in Italy, Germany and elsewhere. We hope that this is a matter of timing, and that we have been through the ‘same’ wave already. But most importantly we hope that our far more extensive rate of vaccination will enable us to preserve our sharp reduction in rates of Covid infection, deaths and hospitalisations.
We also have a very significant difference with our European neighbours when it comes to vaccination. Putting aside the obvious point about how much lower the European prevailing rate of ‘jabs per head’ is than here in the UK – the very approach to vaccination is fundamentally different. A number of EU states have paused the use of the Oxford AstraZeneca (AZ) vaccine because of apparent concerns over blood clots.
I am not a clinician, but a cursory assessment of the data would appear to indicate that the incidence of blood clots among AZ recipients in the EU has been lower than normally anticipated blood clot rates. And yet, whilst the rollout is paused in specific nations, those countries all the time become more vulnerable to Covid, a far more serious clinical prospect. In essence, the approach of many EU nations has been cautious in the extreme, indeed, to the extent that a greater risk is likely to be happening in terms of those delayed from receiving protection against the pandemic.
In contrast, the UK has approached its whole vaccination program with rigour and the usual thorough checks that ensure patient safety, whilst taking every step possible in parallel to accelerate rollout. The best example of this is how we ordered millions of jabs ‘on risk’ when the EU waited months to do the same.
Fundamentally, many may think we are being too cautious at the reopening of society in the UK. But the reality is that our boldness on the vaccine is giving us a chance of the type of reopening that we want more than any other: one that lasts. The worst outcome of all would be to get this process wrong: exiting restrictions only to find ourselves back in lockdown.