By the end of April there will be no justification for Covid legislative restrictions
When the top nine priority groups have been offered a vaccine, we must be allowed to return to normal life.
There is not a government anywhere that hasn’t made mistakes in the battle against Covid; nor one that hasn’t done something from which others can learn.
We’ve all been in the same storm but we’ve been in different boats, and that has led to different outcomes, different mistakes, and different speed in finding the route to safety.
For every country (just sooner here) that route is a shared one and it comes in a tiny vial of pharmaceutical magic.
The success of the UK Vaccine Taskforce (which Nicola Sturgeon and Mark Drakeford would do well to recognise) is down to Boris Johnson’s government which set an objective, handed it over to a small group of people who knew what they were doing, and allowed them to get on with it.
The tremendous pace of the vaccination roll out is down to a national effort which the prime minister has rightly praised.
Covid is a very serious disease and we must control it. However, just like Covid, lockdowns and restrictions cause immense damage and impact on people’s livelihoods.
When the prime minister said in January we can “reclaim our lives once and for all”, he created a spirit of optimism, so we must look forward to rebuilding our society and economy as we protect the vulnerable.
The top four risk groups account for 88% of deaths and about 55% of hospitalisations from Covid. These groups will be protected by vaccination from 8 March, so any restrictions left in place after that should be proportionate to the harm Covid is, by then, capable of causing.
The vaccine must give us immunity from Covid-related restrictions
As the health secretary has outlined, this is measured by hospitalisation and death rates. These goalposts must not move.
The government’s roadmap must demonstrate how the vaccination roll out translates into a return to normal life, and a relaxation of unnecessary restrictions must then follow.
First, the “national priority” of reopening all schools to all pupils must be achieved by 8 March.
Secondly, given the pace of the vaccine roll out, by Easter we will have protected more than two-thirds of risk groups five to nine, so we must ensure that pubs, restaurants and other hospitality venues can open for that first weekend in April, with all the Covid-secure measures in which they’ve invested so heavily. Either that, or ministers must explain exactly how hospitality is such a risk to transmission.
We all have concerns about outside sport, gyms, personal care businesses, care home visits, hotels, events industry businesses, and allowing couples to get married. All restrictions remaining after 8 March must be proportionate to the ever-increasing number of people we have protected.
The burden is on ministers to demonstrate the evidence of effectiveness for each restriction left in place.
Thirdly, once all nine priority groups have been protected by the end of April, there is no justification for any legislative restrictions to remain, given these groups represent 99% of Covid deaths and about 80% of hospitalisations.
Even from new strains of the virus, as vaccinologists have made clear, the vaccine protects against death and hospitalisation. As the PM said, all the vaccines “are effective in delivering a high degree of protection against serious illness and death”.
My prediction is that the debate currently taking place in the Conservative party will soon be joined by the wider country. And as public opinion shifts, as it already has among worried parents of school-age children, so will the opposition and the – until now – remarkably quiet bulk of government MPs.
The vaccine gives us immunity from Covid but it must also give us permanent immunity from Covid-related lockdowns and restrictions. Above all, it should give us hope.
Steve Brine is the Conservative MP for Winchester.