UK Scientists: Cases will rise when we open, but we’ll open anyway

Prof Charles Whitty Photo Credit: No 10 on Flickr CC licence

Boris Johnson’s two chief scientific advisors, Professors Chris Whitty and Patrick Vallance, were in front of the media yesterday to face a grilling on Johnson’s plans to fully re-open the UK next week. The assembled media (doing their job, to be fair) were very eager to poke holes in the plan, and extract quotes about the risks of opening up. This is how it should work: If opening up ends up being a disaster for Britain, and thousands die, then the Prime Minister will be accountable for that. If opening up goes well, and thousands do not die, then he should get the credit, while others in similar positions (Mr. Martin, for example) who cowered in the corner should get the blame.

What was interesting about the event, though, was the position Vallance and Whitty took. Yes, they said, opening up the UK economy fully will lead to an “exit wave” of Covid cases. But, they argued, such an exit wave would come no matter when they made that decision. It was up to the public, not the Government, they said, to be careful:

There is logic to this position, though that will get lost in the “right/wrong” narrative that all political decisions come down to. What they are saying is simple: Covid still exists, and it is still dangerous, but the Government will no longer protect you from it by infringing on the liberties of others.

To some people, that will sound horrifying, because it puts them at risk from the actively reckless. But, of course, those people still have options. They can voluntarily wear masks. They can voluntarily restrict their movements. They can voluntarily avoid large gatherings. The Government has provided people with all the available information about Covid, and how it spreads, and how to protect yourself from it. Get on with it, says Boris.

The result, say Whitty and Vallance, will be a rise in cases, hospitalisations, and deaths – but one unlikely to threaten the ability of the UK’s health service to function. And, if that is the case, is the UK not correct? What else, after all, is a health service for?

The only circumstances in which Johnson and his advisors will look like complete fools here is if they are wrong about the capacity of the NHS, and it ends up collapsing, or coming close to collapse, as a result of covid cases. There is no sign of that happening any time soon, even in the middle of the Delta wave, as the vaccines continue to decouple serious illness from covid infection.

The Irish approach, obviously, is vastly more conservative. Not only more conservative than that of Britain, but also more conservative than that of just about anywhere else in Europe. The significance of what is happening in the UK is that it will determine what happens in Ireland. The one thing of which we can be certain is this: The Irish political establishment is watching everything that happens in the UK, and using it as a guinea pig. If things go well across the channel, we may yet get our freedom this year. If they go badly, then we might still be writing about lockdown next summer.

There is a lot riding on Johnson’s decision. Everybody should be hoping and praying that it works out.

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