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Why Boris Johnson Might Be Forced To Ditch His “Irreversible” Lockdown Promise

The PM warned the end of restrictions did not mean the end of Covid in the UK

5 min read

The Prime Minister's promise of an "irreversible" return to normality from 19 July could come under significant pressure as the UK enters uncharted territory in the pandemic.

When Boris Johnson first announced his roadmap for ending lockdown restrictions earlier this year he said the plans would be "cautious but irreversible".

After a four week delay, the government announced yesterday that 19 July would mark the end of almost all legal restrictions on daily life. Nightclubs will reopen, social distancing will be scrapped, the use of face coverings made a matter of "personal choice".

But after months of promises of a "terminus date" or "freedom day" for England, the PM struck a more cautious tone at Monday's Downing Street briefing.

Johnson suggested the plans will be "irreversible", but only until they have to be reversed after all because of a dangerous new variant or because deaths soar after warmer weather and schools being closed for summer allow a natural slowing of infections. 

Faced with rising case numbers caused by the spread of the Delta variant, the PM insisted that "pandemic was far from over" as he warned the public this was not the "moment to get demob happy" or think "that this is the end of Covid".

Health secretary Sajid Javid has admitted that by 19 July the infection figures are likely to be "at least" 50,000 per day. Later in the summer, he added, that figure could rise to as high as 100,000.Ministers have repeatedly stated in recent weeks those figures are now acceptable as the country learns to "live" with Covid, citing the effectiveness of the vaccine programme in severely weakening the link between infections and subsequent hospitalisations and deaths.

But Johnson's own scientific advisers have made clear that the approach carries significant risks and provides no guarantee that the UK will be able to avoid another lockdown.

In a 9 June meeting, Sage scientists said while the vaccine had reduced the risk of serious illness that the "number of infections and hospitalisations are still linked".

While they said low hospital admissions created uncertainty in the data, they warned that under current assumptions that "if the number of cases doubles and the age distribution of cases doesn't change, a week or so later the number of hospitalisations is also expected to double".

That came alongside a model produced by the Scientific Pandemic Influenza Group on Modelling (SPI-M), which found the decision to lift most restrictions, even if baseline protective measures were retained, could lead to hospital occupancy rates which were "comparable to previous peaks".

Scientists also believed that even if the risk of hospitalisations and deaths is severely reduced by the current crop of jabs, allowing the virus to spread significantly among the population increases the chances of a new, possibly vaccine evading, variant to emerge.

"There is a significant risk in allowing prevalence to rise, even if hospitalisations and deaths are kept low by vaccination," they concluded.

"If it were necessary to reduce prevalence to low levels again... then restrictive measures would be required for much longer."That resurgence, they added, would be amplified by the lifting of restrictions, with autumn and winter pushing more people indoors and ventilation reduced as people close windows in colder weather.

They also warned the reopening of nightclubs, lifting capacity limits on religious, sporting and cultural events also could create the conditions for "superspreader events" where a highly infectious but asymptomatic person could mix with large numbers of people.

According to former chief scientific adviser, Professor Sir Mark Walport, the end of restrictions combined with the decision to scrap the most basic covid-protection measures will create an "even more favourable" environment for the virus to spread.

Further modelling and data about the impacts of the government's decision to scrap restrictions from 19 July is likely to come next week, but the available conclusions make it clear that Boris Johnson's plan is based on significant uncertainty.

Ministers will also be concerned about the varied success in other countries which have pushed ahead with lifting restrictions.

In Israel, which has both a strong monitoring programme and highly successful vaccine programme, restrictions that had been scrapped are already being reintroduced in the face of the Delta surge.

Just ten days after dropping rules around the use of face coverings, the country's health ministry announced earlier this week they would again be required in certain public spaces to help combat the spread.

New data from Israel suggests the Pfizer jab is less effective than previous thought in stopping people from catching the new strain – with efficacy sitting at just 64%.

While the data still clearly shows that the Pfizer jab continues to provide very high levels of protection from developing serious illness, it means infection rates could continue to rise even among the vaccinated.

Soaring infection rates will inevitably result in large numbers of people having to self-isolate and stay off work at a time when support programmes, such as the furlough scheme and support payments are being scaled-back.

Even without any legal restrictions, the Sage group concluded a comprehensive plan should be put in place to promote "Covid-protective" behaviours among the public to keep transmission levels low.

Without "multiple coordinated interventions" they warned that as restrictions came to an end, those behaviours will "not be sustained".But those warnings come in the wake of months of bullish promises about the finality of the roadmap plan, and comments from ministers about their excitement over the prospect of binning their face coverings.

Faced with rising cases, and a raft of scientific warnings over the uncertain trajectory of the pandemic, the PM's more sombre tone as he announced a bonfire of lockdown regulations was unsurprising.

The possibility of new variants, a higher than expected hospitalisation rate, or the added pressure of infections on an already stretched NHS during the winter means fresh lockdown restrictions could become an inevitability.

Even with the prospect of significant backlash from the public and his own party, the PM’s promise of “irreversible” freedoms might be one which he will have to break.

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