As we head into summer, the vast majority of lockdown restrictions will end in England, including social distancing measures and the requirement to wear a face covering in public places.
And while some have hailed July 19th as "Freedom Day", others are more concerned — pointing to the vast increases in COVID-19 case numbers, worrying projections that two million Brits could be infected this summer, and concessions that cases could rise above 100,000 a day.
Among the critics of the plan, one voice in particular stood out.
New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern, who has been widely praised for her handling of the pandemic, roundly dismissed Boris Johnson’s proposal to “live with” COVID-19.
“Different countries are taking different choices,” Ardern said. “The priority for me is how do we continue to preserve what New Zealand has managed to gain and give ourselves options, because this virus is not done with the world yet.”
When Johnson announced the new strategy on Monday however, he admitted that “we must reconcile ourselves, sadly, to more deaths from COVID.”
While the UK is among the world’s best for vaccination rates so far, it’s almost unique insofar that it’s also experiencing an extreme wave of new infections at the same time. Although millions are still yet to be vaccinated, restrictions continue to loosen.
In addition to projected increases in the UK’s COVID-19 death toll, letting the virus run rampant may very well create a perfect storm for new variants to develop that might prove more resistant to vaccines, and thereby endangering the global vaccination effort.
No vaccine is 100% effective. But the vast number of people in the UK who are either unvaccinated or have received just one dose means the conditions are still very much alive for cases to multiply, and as a result, for dangerous variants to emerge.
“Variants do pose a new risk, and we have to keep seeing what effect variants have on vaccination programmes,” Ardern said.
In that case, is the world looking to the UK as a test case — or a threat?
Very very early in the pandemic, Jacinda Ardern made the decision to focus massive attention on arrivals, with a comprehensive quarantine programme.— Edwin Hayward 🦄 🗡 (@uk_domain_names) July 7, 2021
Result: almost zero death, and negligible economic damage. Normal life continues. Only compromise: the loss of overseas travel.
Since Johnson’s new roadmap was announced, experts from the scientific community have echoed New Zealand’s concerns, with some suggesting that allowing community transmission in the UK was like building “variant factories.”
Prof Susan Michie first coined the term, and joined other scientists in condemning the new emphasis on personal responsibility over government intervention. That’s because as the government accepts an exponentially higher number of cases, it means a higher chance that the virus will adapt into different, potentially more dangerous, variants.
As Global Citizen explains here, every time a virus transmits from one person to another, it makes a copy of itself. Sometimes, mistakes are made while copying, which results in a mutation. When there are still parts of the population that are unvaccinated, the likelihood of such mutations only grows.
“The more the virus spreads, the more it’s allowed to replicate in an uncontrolled way, the more of a chance of developing variants that will become not only more infectious, but also variants might pop up that can evade the immune response [produced by vaccinated individuals],” Prof Lawrence Young, a University of Warwick virologist, told the Guardian.
Although the chances of a variant developing that would be completely resistant to the present crop of vaccines are “very slim”, according to Young, the abandoning of restrictions on mask wearing and social distancing only increases the likelihood of more dangerous variants that, very much like the Delta variant from India, could potentially spread rapidly throughout the world.
When it comes to the UK, that risk is exactly what New Zealand is afraid of.