“LET the bodies pile high in their thousands,” expostulated Boris Johnson (pictured) in his private office, but the door was open and a number of witnesses heard him. This was last October, when the second wave of Covid-19 was gaining speed, but the British Prime Minister was determined not to re-impose restrictions like masks and self-isolation on the public.
The bodies did pile quite high — into the tens of thousands, in fact. In the five months November 2020-March 2021, Covid killed 86 049 British citizens, most of whom would have probably lived had Johnson’s government taken a less capricious approach to lockdowns.
Undaunted, he is at it again. On Monday, with new Covid cases zooming past 50 000 a day and currently doubling every two weeks, Johnson announced the end of all pandemic restrictions. Go where you want, wear a mask or not as you like, crowd six deep at the bar, hug people or even sneeze at them if you feel like it, indoors, outdoors, everywhere, any time.
Other governments look on, aghast but fascinated. It would be really interesting to know how many deaths it takes to achieve “herd immunity” in a population that has already been heavily vaccinated and here is a mug who is willing to roll the dice with his own people. Watch closely and take notes.
The British population does pretty much lead the way in vaccinations: 88% of adults have had their first jab and 68% have had both doses. Maybe they are already on the brink of herd immunity, which was generally believed to kick in around 60% of the population vaccinated for the original version of the Covid virus, but may be 80% or higher for more recent, more infectious variants.
Or maybe the recent variants are so infectious that herd immunity is entirely unattainable (90% or above) for any vaccination programme. It would be nice to know, but not at the risk of spreading death and long Covid among our own people. But look! Here comes that nice Mr Johnson, and he is willing to use the British people as guinea pigs.
One can easily imagine such thoughts going through the minds of French or American or Korean leaders, but it is quite unlikely that they passed through Johnson’s own mind. He is not a detail man and it is more likely that he just wandered into this position through inattention and wishful thinking.
First, back in March or April when the vaccines were taking hold and things were looking up, he promised that “freedom day”, when all restrictions would be cancelled, would be in mid-June. Then the Delta variant appeared and caused havoc in India.
That suggested a) that travellers from India should be excluded from the United Kingdom or at least quarantined on arrival, and b) that now might not be the time for brave experiments with dropping all pandemic restrictions. But the tousle-headed blond pressed on, because he had scheduled an end-of-April visit to India’s prime minister to negotiate the first big post-Brexit trade deal.
He could hardly fly to India if he was not letting Indians fly to Britain, so he kept the gates open for 17 days after he had banned travel from Pakistan and Bangladesh (where the infection rates were much lower). That is why almost all new Covid infections in the UK are the ultra-infectious Delta variant, whereas elsewhere in Europe Delta is still relatively rare.
In mid-April, Johnson closed the gates to Indian travellers and postponed “freedom day” for a month. But he has stuck grimly to that date even though he had the horrible example of the Netherlands before him — it ended all restrictions in late June, then re-imposed them last week when new infections ran wild. And now “freedom day” has arrived in England.
Britain’s new health secretary, Sajid Javid (who has just caught Covid), blithely predicts that there might be 100 000 new infections a day within a couple of weeks. However, not to worry because “the link between infection and hospitalisation or death has been broken”.
No, it has not, although that link is clearly much weakened by the level of vaccinations in the UK. No vaccine confers complete immunity and if daily infections climb into six digits, even a one-in-a-thousand rate of hospitalisation can mean hundreds a day. Johnson is gambling with people’s lives, although it is not clear if he really understands the risk.
On the other hand, maybe he will get away with it. The very nature of experiments is that you do not know the outcome in advance and this is a big, important one. If the British level of vaccinations really lets a country open up completely, despite the worst that new variants can do, that is good news for everybody.
And if that turns out not to be the case, it is only British people who have to die.
Dyer is a London-based independent journalist. His new book is titled Growing Pains: The Future of Democracy (and Work).