The face of hope in 2020 is 90-year-old Margaret Keenan, the first patient worldwide to receive the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine. After a year mostly spent self-isolating, she described her dose as “the best thing that’s ever happened”. It was welcome not only to her, and to her family, but to strangers across the land. In the gloom of winter, the rollout of the immunisation programme is a rare glimmer of light.

Though this year may seem to have stretched on for an eternity, it has been only months from sequencing the virus to deploying an approved vaccine. That is a truly astonishing achievement: a testament to the work of scientists and others around the world. Many more candidates are close behind it. Russia has already begun to deliver its Sputnik V vaccine. China has vaccinated more than a million people with the Sinopharm vaccine, still in its testing phase.

To receive the vaccine is, as Mrs Keenan said, a privilege – even if not everyone agrees. The spread of vaccine scepticism is disturbing, and will be best addressed through sensible discussion rather than boosterism. But the greater danger is that people will relax their guard. Even Mrs Keenan will not be safe until after she has received her second shot in three weeks time, and millions more judged to be highly vulnerable will have to wait months to be immunised. It will be a long time before we have sufficient doses.

If people are given false confidence by the use of the first batch, they may be more inclined to “tear the pants out of” relaxed restrictions, to use Prof Jonathan Van-Tam’s memorable phrase. Nottingham, already in tier 3, was forced to close its Christmas market last weekend after shoppers crammed in, and shots of packed streets in central London caused similar alarm. A leading public health expert has called for the capital to enter tier 3 within 48 hours, citing the sharp rise in cases to an average of 170 cases per 100,000, above the current rate in several places already in the higher level, such as Bristol and Coventry. Jeremy Farrar, a member of the government’s Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage) and director of the Wellcome Trust, warned that while a third wave is not inevitable, it will become so if greater household mixing over Christmas follows an increase in community transmission in December.

Weariness and despair at the impact of the regulations, confusion thanks to complicated and shifting rules, and the sense of unfairness engendered by high-profile breaches of the rules – or the decision to exempt “high-value” business travellers – are all taking their toll. Boris Johnson has previously accused the public of being “complacent”, and Matt Hancock has suggested that Britain has a “peculiarly unusual” culture of going to work when sick. But people in crowded housing, or jobs that are insecure in every sense, do not choose to risk exposure, and it is the government which has set and communicated the rules, and which determines how able people are to abide by them. Their failings in these regards have contributed to England’s Covid-19 death toll of more than 50,000.

Other countries too are deeply concerned about the weeks and months ahead. Germany’s health minister has said it may need tougher restrictions before Christmas, while Denmark is reinstating tighter curbs on 38 towns and cities, including Copenhagen and Aarhus. The situation is especially bleak in the US, now averaging around 200,000 cases, and which has recorded more than 3,000 deaths in one day. Anthony Fauci, the top infectious disease expert and soon to be chief medical adviser to the Biden administration, has warned that January could be “a real dark time”, suggesting Christmas could be more of a challenge than Thanksgiving due to its length.

The advent of the vaccine shows that there is an end in sight, at last. It is an opportunity too precious to be squandered. There can be no easing up on test and trace. There is no requirement to mingle at Christmas just because you can. Hope gives us all a reason to do our best.

Contributor

Editorial

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
The Guardian view on vaccine passports: a tool to handle with care | Editorial
Editorial: Practical and ethical concerns are valid, but a well-designed policy with the right legal safeguards could make a valuable difference

Editorial

24, Feb, 2021 @6:44 PM

Article image
The Guardian view on coronavirus and vaccine scepticism: time to act | Editorial
Editorial: Plans for mass immunisation against Covid-19 are developing fast, but concerns must be addressed

Editorial

22, Nov, 2020 @6:30 PM

Article image
The Guardian view on the pandemic: a universal crisis is revealing our divisions | Editorial
Editorial: The UK must tread carefully. While some countries seem to be emerging from the shadows, no one is safe when Covid spreads so freely

Editorial

06, Apr, 2021 @6:10 PM

Article image
The Guardian view on coexisting with Covid: new vaccines needed fast | Editorial
Editorial: There is a race between viral variants and vaccines – and for humanity’s sake the latter must win

Editorial

08, Feb, 2021 @7:23 PM

Article image
The Guardian view on 'herd immunity': yes it was 'part of the plan' | Editorial
Editorial: The government’s early approach to the Covid-19 crisis, despite its denials, was to let the disease spread

Editorial

29, Apr, 2020 @6:36 PM

Article image
The Guardian view on the WHO and coronavirus: Trump’s blame game | Editorial
Editorial: Cutting off funds to the international body will only punish those most vulnerable to Covid-19

Editorial

15, Apr, 2020 @6:25 PM

Article image
Altruism would undermine UK vaccine strategy | Letters
Letters: Donating your jab would undermine the rationale behind the prioritisation scheme, writes John Main. Plus letters from Ruth Eversley and Linda Murgatroyd

Letters

03, Feb, 2021 @6:02 PM

Article image
The Guardian view on a vaccination programme: keep politics out of it | Editorial
Editorial: There is a job of public reassurance ahead that will be made harder if partisanship and ministerial grandstanding get in the way

Editorial

02, Dec, 2020 @6:40 PM

Article image
The Guardian view on the EU and Covid-19: better late than never | Editorial
Editorial: Europe is in the pandemic frontline but unity among the nations has been rare. That may be changing – not before time

Editorial

24, Apr, 2020 @5:30 PM

Article image
The Guardian view on a second wave: hoping for the best is not enough | Editorial
Letters: New cases in China and New Zealand highlight the risks of coronavirus resurging, and show why Britain must do better

Editorial

17, Jun, 2020 @5:55 PM