‘Data, not dates.” This was the approach Boris Johnson promised to take when he announced the roadmap out of lockdown for England in February. So far, the data has allowed the prime minister to meet the target dates for each phase of relaxing of social restrictions. Infection rates are the lowest they have been since last August; the number of people in hospital with Covid has dropped dramatically and vaccination is proceeding apace.
Yet as we stand on the cusp of the next easing of social restrictions, happening across England, Wales and most of Scotland tomorrow, there are worrying signs that the B.1.617.2 variant first detected in India is spreading quickly in some parts of the country. In Bolton, infection rates are 10 times higher than the English average. They may not yet justify a nationwide slowing in easing restrictions but they are worrying and require a rapid localised response to contain outbreaks. This mixed picture is a bitter pill to swallow. For weeks, the national mood has justifiably been one of relief; psychologically, it has felt like the end is in sight. The majority of British adults have now had one jab, offering them a good level of protection against Covid. Yet it was always clear that the biggest risk of a serious third wave would be from the spread of a variant that is more transmissable, more likely to cause serious illness or with a greater degree of vaccine resistance. Scientists are now confident that B.1.617.2 is at least as transmissable as the B.1.1.7 variant originally detected in Kent, which contributed to the terrible death rates we saw in the second wave, and quite possibly more so. If this is the case, the race between the virus and the vaccine rollout will become more loaded in the former’s favour: modelling suggests that hospital admissions could increase significantly beyond what was seen in the second wave if B.1.617.2 proves to be much more transmissable.
There are serious questions to be asked about why the government did not put India, where B.1.617.2 has been spreading rapidly, on the red list for international travel sooner. It was not an easy choice: the UK has close links with India and many British citizens have extended family who live in the country. But Covid cases had been rising quickly there throughout March. In early April, Bangladesh and Pakistan were added to the red list even though infection rates were far lower than in India; the government did not add India to the list until three weeks later. Ministers said this was because there were variants of concern circulating in Bangladesh and Pakistan, but B.1.617.2 had not yet been classified as a variant of concern. At the time, it seemed like folly not to take a more precautionary approach given India was in the midst of the worst global outbreak.
The lack of transparency about how these decisions were taken has paved the way for speculation that India may have been kept off the red list for political reasons: Johnson had a strategically important trip to talk about a post-Brexit trade deal for late April that he wanted to go ahead. The number of people carrying B.1.617.2 into the UK during those three weeks grew; the UK now has the biggest outbreak of B.1.617+ variants outside of India.
This is just the latest example of a government that has put off taking difficult actions until it is too late in this pandemic. Its decisions about when to impose and relax social restrictions have contributed to the UK’s terrible death toll. While it has learned the lessons this time by taking a more gradual approach to relaxing restrictions, it should have acted with more caution on international travel.
Now that B.1.617.2 is spreading in some parts of the UK, urgent and precautionary action is required to contain it. Given the higher-than-average levels of deprivation in the parts of the country where it has taken root, it is even more important that the government funds proper sick pay for people who are self-isolating. This is precisely the wrong moment for outsourcers Serco and Sitel to be replacing clinical call handlers with non-clinical staff in the track-and-trace scheme. There are also difficult judgments to make about the vaccine rollout: local leaders in Blackburn are keen to offer vaccines to all over-18s, but protection takes three weeks to kick in and by then the variant may have spread to neighbouring areas where more vulnerable groups may not have been vaccinated because supply has been diverted. But given reports that people being admitted to hospital in Bolton with B.1.617.2 are predominantly those eligible for vaccination, but who have not yet had it, it is critical that everything possible is done to increase vaccination rates locally.
It is also no longer clear that the national approach to easing restrictions in England is the right one. Relaxing restrictions in Bolton tomorrow will undoubtedly make it more difficult to contain the variant’s spread. In Scotland, Nicola Sturgeon has delayed relaxation in Moray and Glasgow, where infection rates are relatively high but significantly lower than in Bolton. Local lockdowns inevitably bring costs, but may be justified in the long run in order to prevent a more widespread third wave of hospital admissions and deaths.
The story of the government’s response to this pandemic is of a prime minister loth to take difficult and timely decisions. The country has paid the price in terms of higher death rates and even tougher restrictions imposed for longer later down the line. If B.1.617.2 proves not much more transmissable than the Kent variant, there may be no reason yet to change course. But the government must halt or reverse its roadmap if there are signs it has not been contained. That would be the price of its failure to act sooner to prevent the variant being brought into the UK in the first place.