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The risk of reopening

The risk of reopening

The last Covid restrictions are supposed to be lifted in about three weeks. Is it safe to lift them?


Today’s story was written and produced by Ella Hill.

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Nimo: Hi, I’m Nimo – and this is Sensemaker, from tortoisemedia.com

One story every day to make sense of the world.

Today, it’s 18 days until England is meant to open up again completely – but Covid cases are on the rise. 

So, are we really gonna be back to normal in a few weeks time? Or are we at the start of a third wave? 

The bank holiday weekend we’ve just had felt pretty much like “back to normal” for a lot of us.

Millions of adults have been vaccinated – about a third of people have had both doses now – so everyone’s feeling way more confident about getting out and about again.

Thousands of day trippers went to the beach…to the pub…or out shopping.

There are still rules in place: 

You can’t meet with more than six people indoors, or more than 30 outside. 

You can hug your friends again (cautiously – whatever that means) but you’re still meant to social distance if you can. 

But the next  – and (supposedly) the final – phase of the reopening is set for June 21st.

That’s been the plan since Boris Johnson announced the road map out of lockdown back in February.

“We are travelling on a one-way road to freedom, and we can begin safely to restart our lives and do it with confidence.”

Boris Johnson

From 21 June, we’re gonna be able to do away with the “rule of six” indoors.

Clubs and live music venues are set to open, and there won’t be number limits for big events like weddings and funerals….

IF things go ahead as planned, that is…

***

It’s a BIG if, because Covid cases are on the rise again in the UK. 

“The scientists worried last week cases of the Indian variants to 1,313, but since then they’ve risen by more than 160 per cent, now is 3,424.”

In Scotland, which is a few weeks ahead of England in terms of unlocking, the government has looked at its infection data and decided to slow things down:

“In areas where cases are relatively high or rising, our judgement is that a slight slowing down of the easing of restrictions, to allow time for more people to be fully vaccinated, will help to protect that progress overall.”

Nicola Sturgeon

It is true that case numbers are still low compared to what we have seen, but they’ve gone up pretty fast – by 30% in the space of a week – even if it is from a low level. 

That uptick is worrying scientists – and it could mean that the next phase of reopening gets postponed: 

“I think most of us who are looking at the figures and are advising the government would say that we really are not confident at the moment that opening up on the 21st would be safe.”

Professor Peter Openshaw

That’s Professor Peter Openshaw, speaking to the BBC a few days ago. He’s an immunologist – he specialises in respiratory viruses, mainly influenza – and he’s been advising the government since the beginning of the pandemic. 

Right now, Peter Openshaw and other specialists like him are preaching caution about the next phase of unlocking. 

Because what we’re seeing in the data could be the beginnings of a third wave of infection: 

“We are seeing that the new variant, the one that was first detected in India, the 617.2 has been increasing very sharply in the UK and really is replacing the previous variants that were circulating before. The numbers are overall slightly increasing. That hasn’t really been reflected in increasing numbers in admissions. But we know that takes time to feed through and the admissions take time to feed through to serious diseases and deaths. We are watching the data day by day and it’s so important that we are cautious in what we will do in the next a few weeks.”

Professor Peter Openshaw

We need to be careful about this, he’s saying. 

Because if there’s anything we’ve learned over the last year it’s that even small rises can turn into HUGE peaks if we don’t make efforts to “flatten the curve”. 

So: should we be unlocking on 21 June?

***

Scientists don’t all agree about whether or not we should go ahead with the next stage of opening up. Even high-profile, highly-respected ones come down on different sides of the argument. 

They’re making judgements; balancing what we know about the effectiveness of the vaccines and what we know about how fast the new variant, the one which was first found in India, is spreading. And basically, we know a lot more about the vaccine than the variant. 

But if there’s anyone who’s really high-profile and really respected when it comes to Covid-19 it’s Professor Peter Openshaw.

He’s been studying respiratory viruses for decades. He’s the Director of the Respiratory Infections Centre at Imperial College London, one of the top medical institutes in the world.

In short: he’s at the top of his field 

And he’s been advising the government on strategies for dealing with pandemic flu outbreaks since 2006.  

He researched the bird flu outbreak that year:

And helped the government to beef up its strategy afterwards. 

“And it certainly was a wake-up call for the people planning for a pandemic. The reason that is so alarming is that of these 112 initial cases, 57 people died. So a very large So if it played out on a large scale with human to human transmission around the world it would mean billions of people might die. This was terrifying.”

Professor Peter Openshaw

Same again for the Swine Flu pandemic in 2009. Peter Openshaw was there, giving advice to the government about what to do and how to manage it. 

Basically, when he says we should be careful, we’d be daft not to take him seriously…

***

That’s what Boris Johnson promised to do. To listen to the science: 

“At every stage, our decisions will be led by data not dates.”

Boris Johnson

From the beginning, the prime minister said the timetable for unlocking is not set in stone. 

At each phase, the government said it would keep a close eye on case numbers and listen to the experts – and if they said that moving on to the next step might be a bad idea, the government would take their advice and put those plans on ice.

But it seems that Boris Johnson and some of his scientific advisers might not be seeing eye to eye on exactly what the data is saying…

Because while Peter Openshaw seems to think it’s saying we shouldn’t reopen. 

The Prime Minister isn’t so sure: 

“I can see nothing in the data at the moment that means we cannot go ahead with Step 4 on June 21.”

Boris Johnson

To be fair, it is a difficult calculation to make, we still don’t know how effective the vaccines will be at protecting the most vulnerable people from getting really ill from the new variant.

He’s more optimistic than some of his scientific advisers about the timeline for opening up, but, like them, Boris Johnson has said that we’ve got to be careful too: 

“We’ve got to be so cautious because there is no question, the ONS data on the infection rate is showing an increase. We always knew that was going to happen. “

Boris Johnson

To decide whether to unlock in a few weeks time, we have to wait and see what the data tells us. 

On that point, he and Peter Openshaw definitely seem to agree. 

They’re both saying that we need more information about whether these new cases are translating into hospitalisations and deaths, more data about who is being affected and more data about whether the vaccines are effective or not. 

And that data will take time to come through. 

Right now, there’s a slight rise in the number of people going into hospital. Last week, 605 people were admitted to hospital with Covid, compared to 592 people the week before. But it’s hard to say whether that’s something to worry about: overall the numbers now are still a lot lower than they were back in April. 

We’ll know more soon, but for now, we can’t make any firm decisions about what to do on June 21st: it’s a waiting game. 

Today’s story was written and produced by Ella Hill.

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