If the last 18 months have taught us anything, it’s that a successful COVID-19 policy requires three things: high levels of public trust, a coherent strategy and effective implementation. Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s government is in danger of squandering all of them.
Just as the U.K. parliament is preparing to disband for the summer recess — a time when intrigue and plotting tend to replace open debate — the government has made two back-to-back U-turns, with more likely to come.
It took only a few hours on Sunday for Downing Street to walk back the decision for Johnson and Chancellor of the Exchequer Rishi Sunak to skip self-isolation after crossing paths with someone who tested positive for COVID-19 (Health Secretary Sajid Javid). That kind of exceptionalism wasn’t going to go down well with the half-million or so Brits stuck at home after being pinged by the NHS contact-tracing app.
On Monday came another reversal (or a reversal of a reversal, for anyone keeping track). The government said that from September, nightclubs, which were just allowed to reopen this week without social distancing, will be required to certify entrants have been fully vaccinated.
These repeated volte-faces leave the sense that COVID-19 policy is now driven by party politics as much as epidemiological sense.
There is no scientific reason why Johnson couldn’t have opted out of self-isolating, taken a daily test and kept running the country from 10 Downing Street. But in the lab of public opinion, things would have blown up. He’d already lost a health secretary to hypocrisy and got serious flack when his former advisor Dominic Cummings (now archenemy) flouted the rules.
The science was also clear on nightclubs from the beginning. You don’t have to be an epidemiologist to see crowding indoors as a superspreader event. Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte had to apologize earlier this month when coronavirus infections soared the week after nightclubs flung open their doors. Rutte shut them.
And yet Johnson, not exactly known as a conviction politician, got caught up in conflicting political demands. He promised to lift remaining COVID-19 restrictions by July 19. Backbench lawmakers had already opposed the three-week delay from the original reopening date; they argued the economy is being too heavily damaged by restrictions and that the vulnerable are already vaccinated. Many also opposed vaccine passports and other measures to certify COVID-19-free status, which might have made the reopening safer.
The arguments around vaccine certification (as the government prefers to call it) to reopen the economy have been fiercely debated and well rehearsed. Proponents note that they provide some protection in crowded places and nudge those who are hesitant to get vaccinated. Opponents argue they exacerbate inequalities (though this seems like less of a problem if a negative test is accepted as well) and are intrusive. After reviewing these issues this month, the government decided not to pursue the passport route.
The sudden U-turn from this has sparked an outcry. The night-time hospitality community will lose unvaccinated revelers to the pubs down the road. Some Tories see vaccine passports as a slippery slope toward a biosecurity state. Young people and others are wondering why, if certification is necessary on safety grounds, the rule will only come into force in September. (The answer is, again, political: because more over-18s will be vaccinated by then.)
The latest course corrections probably won’t be the last. The government has also changed its messaging around reopening, urging people to remain cautious, wear masks on public transport and work from home. Its hope is that the summer COVID-19 surge will fizzle by autumn, when the real pressure on an already hobbled National Health Service starts building.
The current trajectory of the delta variant is straining health services even with relatively low rates of hospitalization. And as Imperial College’s Neil Ferguson noted recently, it will likely create around half a million additional cases of Long Covid, a condition that is already imposing serious social and economic costs. Gen Z had been dreading Freedom Day’s widespread relaxation of rules.
The latest policy U-turns only create confusion and further undermine trust. That’s what happens when the government’s guiding principle looks like party cohesion instead of public safety.
Therese Raphael is a columnist for Bloomberg Opinion.
In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.