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Indian summer

Monday 17 May 2021

Boris Johnson’s roadmap for lockdown easing is now imperilled by a rampant Covid variant. On 14 June, he must make one of the most difficult decisions of his life


Do you want to know what keeps the prime minister awake in the silent watches of the night? It is not expensive wallpaper, the potential break-up of the United Kingdom, the geopolitical consequences of Brexit, or even the prospect of another slighted girlfriend emerging to brandish a paternity suit in a tell-all interview.

According to a close ally: “The two words Boris dreads most are “fourth” and “lockdown”. He doesn’t believe for a second that the country would put up with it again, and he absolutely refuses to consider doing all this nationally for a fourth time. It’s become like a phobia, or “don’t mention the war.”

Which is why, in all his statements about lockdown easing since the roadmap was unveiled on 22 February, the PM has invariably described the process as “cautious and irreversible”. No restriction would be lifted unless the scientific data supported such relaxation; but – no less important – the “liberty traffic”, as one cabinet minister describes it, would be strictly one-way. No more national lockdowns.

As psychologically and politically comprehensible as this position is, it is also epidemiological nonsense. No prime minister, however competent and well-advised, can possibly be certain of the direction of travel; that is not how pandemics work.

It is not, for that matter, how evolution works. Viruses respond aggressively to so-called “selective pressure”: if we try to block their advance, they seek to escape by mutation, squirming and morphing furiously to overcome any new setting or context. And the latest such “flavour” (as virologists like to say) of Covid-19 to emerge in this way is the so-called Indian variant, B.1.617.2, now surging in clusters around the country such as Bolton and Blackburn, and expected soon enough to become the dominant strain of the pathogen in the UK.

This is the shadow that looms over today’s Step 3 easing of lockdown restrictions. Pubs, restaurants, cafes and bars can now serve customers indoors; cinemas, theatres and museums will be progressively reopening; hotels and B&Bs can resume business; six people or two households can meet inside; and so on. And let us not forget the indisputable triumph of the vaccine roll-out, thanks to which no fewer than 20 million people have already received both doses of the jab.

Yet it is hard to find a minister in a celebratory mood. On Tuesday, the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage) held a video conference call – its 89th meeting of the pandemic – and concluded, with “high confidence” that the Indian variant is more virulent than B.1.1.7, the Kentish mutation, and that “it is a realistic possibility that it is as much as 50 per cent more transmissible.” 

Thus, in a single main clause, did Sage send waves of panic coursing through Downing Street. According to modelling by Warwick University, transmissibility in this range could drive up hospitalisations to the heights scaled during the first peak last year. Naturally, such projections are not cast-iron predictions, but tripwire warnings to ministers of the range of risk that lies ahead. 

The early data does not necessarily support the gloomier prognoses. As Matt Hancock told Sky’s Sophy Ridge yesterday, provisional research in Oxford University’s labs has given the government and NHS “a degree of confidence” that the new variant will not cut through the vaccine. “Our strategy remains on track,” said the health secretary. “It is just that in the race between the vaccine and the variants, the variant has got more legs.”

As B.1.617.2, limbers up in its new spikes, bursting with steroids, three anxieties predominate in Whitehall. The first is practical: the majority of those infected by the new strain in Bolton were eligible for the vaccine but had not received it. Nearly one third of the town’s population are Muslims, one of the demographics most inclined to vaccine hesitancy. All over the country, imams and Islamic social influencers have done remarkable work in urging the faithful to ignore online misinformation about the jab – not least by turning mosques into vaccine centres. 

But there is clearly still work to do, and ministers are determined to ensure that it is done in a proactive but respectful fashion. It is to Hancock’s credit that he is unambiguously resisting calls for mandatory vaccination – which would, in any case, be unlawful under the Public Health (Control of Disease) Act 1984.  

Second: there is the fear of a political backlash if the Indian variant does indeed become the king of the mutants over the summer. Twice, the government has delayed national lockdown, at a cost that may become even clearer when the independent public inquiry begins its work in spring 2022. A question that ministers will be asked then, as they are being asked now, is: why was there a ten day gap between Pakistan and Bangladesh being put on the “red list” of countries on 9 April, and India being added, finally, on 19 April? 

On the day that it was thus categorised, Pakistan had a seven-day average of 21 cases per million people; yet the comparable statistic for India was four times higher. This, Hancock said yesterday, was the wrong metric to use in assessing the government’s decisions: India’s testing system is much better than Pakistan’s which, he claimed, accounted for the higher case rate.

Instead, he said, the UK authorities had made their judgments on the basis of the “positivity rates” of incoming travellers from the respective countries. On which specific basis, the health secretary continued, Pakistan and Bangladesh merited inclusion on the “red list” sooner than India.

This is at best disingenuous. The criteria used by the Joint Biosecurity Centre to decide which countries should be in the travel ban category are much broader than Hancock suggested during the broadcasting round yesterday.

“It was only after we put India on the red list,” he said, “that this variant went under investigation”. This, as it happens, is not true. The day before Hancock made the announcement on 19 April, Susan Hopkins, who is in charge of Public Health England’s Covid strategy, told the BBC’s Andrew Marr that  “[w]e have put [the Indian mutation] as a variant under investigation”.

More to the point, the existence of an Indian variant has been known since October, and the first case in the UK of this particular mutation was recorded as early as 22 February. Did the government delay putting India on the red list because Boris Johnson still hoped to make a trade trip to India on 25 April and wanted to spare the feelings of his fellow populist head of government, Narendra Modi? If the B.1.617.2 variant does indeed spread as Sage has warned it might, this delay – during which many thousands of travellers arrived in the UK from India – may look very shabby indeed.

Third: in less than a month, on Monday, 14 June, Johnson and his most senior colleagues must decide and announce whether or not to move to Step 4 on 21 June: the date on which, if the criteria set out in roadmap are met, “lockdown will be lifted and all legal limits on social contact removed.”

By then, ministers hope, they will have sufficient data to make their momentous decision.

But will they? Yes, our behaviour in the next four weeks will be very different, as social gatherings proliferate and, with varying degrees of enthusiasm, we explore the halfway house between full lockdown and its full lifting. Everything will be provisional, probationary, hybridised.

As Sir Mark Walport, the former chief scientific adviser, put it yesterday we are entering a grey zone where hugs are theoretically permissible, but “tight clinches should be avoided”. He laughed as he said this, clearly struck by the impossibility of answering definitively the millions of questions that lie ahead.

What fills ministers with anxiety is the suspicion that they will not, in fact, have sufficient evidence to make a fully-informed decision, and that, given the time lag between infection and symptoms, the true impact of the Indian variant, especially upon the unvaccinated, will not yet be clear. “We hoped that the colours would be primary by now,” says one. “But, to be honest, it’s still a bit psychedelic. You hope for the best – but the certainty is not there.”

Nor will it be. At the very least, we know now that 21 June will not be some sort of epidemiological VE Day, with fireworks and laser shows to celebrate the glorious return of the nation to something like normality. 

Yet – in truth – it was never going to be. Covid has no interest in the modern taste for “closure”. It plans to hang around, to be the last guest to leave, to be, at the very least, the chronic pain at the base of the nation’s spine for as long as evolution allows. 

It is indeed conceivable that Johnson will not feel able to give the green light on 14 June. Why? Because it has become an article of faith for him that there shall be no fourth lockdown. He has one shot in his locker. 

Get it right, and he sets the nation free to begin its long recovery from the grim reign of Covid. Get it wrong, and he – and the rest of us – could face a nightmare that hardly needs to be spelt out. No wonder his sleep is troubled.