This piece is more focused on UK experience than some of my other posts on the pandemic. The Zero COVID movement seems to have been quite varied in its societal impact, reflecting different national political cultures and pandemic trajectories. No doubt it will, in time, become an object of study for scholars of social movements. However, the issues explored here are likely to be of wider significance as nations formulate their exit strategies from pandemic controls. When and how will governments stop regulating everyday life – and how much power will they be tempted to try to retain? The material interests at stake here are at least as big as those in airport security since 9/11, where there is always a temptation to add another layer, paid for by the traveler or the taxpayer ‘just in case’. How do we prevent similar entrenchment in testing programs or vaccine passports? What is the point of vaccination if nothing changes?
The real COVID news gets better every day. Case numbers are falling. Hospital admissions are falling. Deaths are falling. The vaccination programme is a success beyond anyone’s wildest imagination.
New, effective treatments are emerging. Spring, fresh air and sunshine are almost upon us. Why, then, is there so much talk of keeping restrictions in place for the rest of the year? Why do some say that we should keep the so-called ‘Rule of Six’ for months to come and warn we might be wearing face masks for ever – yes, for ever – in some situations at least?
Almost every day there is some fresh reason to be terrified, whether in the shape of long COVID or mutant viruses. No wonder the public is confused. Will we be allowed to go on holiday or will we be told to stay at home as the sun shines? How long must we wait as lives and livelihoods fall apart?
We are rapidly approaching a crunch point for Britain. Do we treat the virus as an ordinary risk of life, much as we do with the other 30 respiratory viruses that have infected humans throughout history? This is the approach we have been promised since the beginning of the crisis.
Or do we try to eliminate the virus from the UK altogether – the so-called Zero COVID approach, a route I believe is now favoured by a worrying number of influential voices in science and in government?
This is a political choice, not a scientific one – and I’m concerned at what I see. In my view, Zero COVID is authoritarian, involving a systematic denial of basic humanity. And it is probably impossible to achieve.
Little has been said openly so far, but behind the scenes the battle is very real.
Some of those at the very top have signalled their scepticism about Zero COVID. The chief medical officer for England, professor Chris Whitty, has spoken about living with the virus and reducing the deaths to a level of 7,000 to 10,000 a year, which is comparable to the number caused by seasonal influenza.
His deputy, professor Jonathan Van Tam, has repeatedly stated that he does not think that COVID-19 can be eradicated from the United Kingdom. Sir John Bell, Regius Professor of Medicine at Oxford University, has been clear that people want to return to a normal way of life – including attending football matches – and will not tolerate restrictions for too much longer.
Yet there are other, more cautious voices, too. Health Secretary Matt Hancock has mostly obfuscated when asked direct questions about Zero COVID. The furthest he has gone is to ‘hope’ we can learn to live with Covid-19 like the flu – but only when, later in the year, every adult in the country has been vaccinated.
The Welsh and Scottish governments have been clear that they wish to eliminate the virus, not manage it.
And what of SAGE, the government advisory mechanism? This is a loose network of specialists with many sub-committees, including infection specialists on NERVTAG (the new and emerging respiratory virus threats advisory group), public behaviour experts on Spi-B (the scientific pandemic influenza group on behaviours) and the mathematicians on Spi-M (the scientific pandemic influenza group on modelling).
But at the heart of SAGE is an inner clique with the ear of ministers and journalists – and it seems to favour Zero COVID.
However, it is the government’s actions that speak the loudest of all – effectively closing down foreign travel with strict border controls, quarantine hotels and the draconian ten-year jail terms for those failing to comply. This looks like an elimination policy to me.
The Zero COVID lobby might not win in the end. I profoundly hope it does not. But even now its influence is casting a pall over the success of the vaccination programme. And this damaging caution is preventing us from imagining – and grasping – the true possibilities that the vaccines offer for the weeks and months ahead.
Of course I can see the theoretical attraction of Zero COVID in this country. It seems a clear and decisive way to escape from the nightmare of the last year. Border controls and quarantines would remain in place in an attempt to prevent the infection from being re-imported. It would also contribute to the global Zero COVID movement, an attempt to end the problem for the whole world for all time.
The practice is likely to be different, however. The only infection to be completely eradicated from the planet is smallpox. Yet this took 200 years from the introduction of vaccination to its final elimination.
The final 30 years were an unprecedented effort of international collaboration, at the height of the Cold War. Bear in mind, too, that smallpox is more easily diagnosed than COVID-19 – which is often present with no symptoms – and that the smallpox vaccine gives lifelong immunity, which is unlikely in the case of the coronavirus that causes Covid-19. We should understand this, too: Zero COVID envisages a total reconstruction of our way of life – diet, housing, relations with other species, travel and work, enforced by micro-management and aggressive policing. Like all utopians, its advocates think the ends justify whatever means are required to achieve them.
The nearest working model of Zero COVIDcan be found in China, where the strategy from the outset was to have no infections at all. David Rennie, of The Economist, describes life in Beijing today:
‘Every time you step outside your door you have to use a smartphone to scan a QR code – every shop, every taxi, every bus, every metro station. You have no privacy at all – it’s all built around this electronic system of contact tracing… We basically don’t have the virus here, but… it’s very hard to know where Covid containment starts and a Communist police state with an obsession with control kicks in.’
For us, though, there is better news. The success of vaccines and their rollout means we can be confident that living with COVID-19 need be little different from living with any other respiratory virus.
This is what both clinical trials and actual experience have shown and why we have spent millions of pounds buying vaccines and delivering them. What was the point if nothing was going to change? Do we not believe the evidence?
The benefits are being confirmed each day both by real experience in Israel and – it has been reported – by unpublished UK data. Above all, we must hold on to this fact: vaccines protect us against the chances of serious illness or death. They probably reduce the likelihood of you infecting other people, too, but that is not what matters. Sitting on a bus next to someone who is coughing and spluttering might be unpleasant but it is not a death sentence – not if you have been vaccinated. Your biggest risk is of a mild illness.
Of course, it would be better if people with symptoms stayed at home for a few days – and we should find ways to encourage that – but vaccination means there will be no justification for face coverings, empty seats and constant sanitisation.
There is no need for endless testing or vaccine ‘passports’. If you visit another country, you are protected by your own immunity. Perhaps your holiday will be spoiled by a mild infection, but who among us has not been unwell abroad?
There is no point to an elaborate system for testing, tracing and isolating because the spread of the infection does not matter. And once you understand this, then the case for the whole system of control and restriction falls apart.
Unfortunately, the past year has created its own vested interests. Contact tracing was the biggest contributor to UK economic growth in December 2020. There are big contracts, large research grants and an endless vista of construction projects refitting buildings to new ventilation standards.
Some advisers enjoy the glamour of their TV appearances and the sense of power that goes with any apparatus of control. These interests are protected by the prevailing culture of fear and the exaggeration of concerns such as virus variants and ‘Long COVID’. These are things to study but not a cause of alarm. Viruses vary all the time but rarely shift to a degree that makes vaccines or therapies totally ineffective.
It is true that some vulnerable people have been reluctant to accept the vaccinations on offer and may remain vulnerable. But this problem is not beyond the reach of a well-organised information campaign, such as we are now seeing.
Living with COVID challenges vested interests – but will also release us to do things that are more useful and economically productive than living in fear, inevitably poorer, endlessly seeking permission for this or clearances to do that.
It was misleading for some to claim, as they did last spring, that the infection was no worse than a bad flu. It is a nasty disease, difficult to control and it has killed far too many people. But now we can take influenza as a benchmark. Vaccination brings the risk posed by Covid down to levels humans have lived with for millennia.
If we would not do something to control flu, why would we ever do it for a population vaccinated against COVID? It is time to seize the opportunity we have given ourselves. As levels of immunity rise we must demand that controls fall just as rapidly away.
We have every right to the ‘old normal’ of human contact, joy and celebration – not a soulless ‘new normal’ of Government control, impoverishment and continuing misery.
This article first appeared in the Mail on Sunday, February 21, 2021