Tory MP Steve Baker has a plan.
It’s a plan that he says would mean we could all go about our lives from May 1 as if Covid didn’t exist.
The self-professed “hard man of Brexit” and his Covid Recovery Group (CRG) have put forward a proposal stating the “tremendous pace” of the vaccination rollout means restrictions should begin easing from early March.
And by the end of April, that’s it. Back to normal for everyone.
So what is their plan and will it work? In short, almost certainly not. In fact, it’s highly likely it would result in the very thing it’s seeking to end.
“They are absolutely focused on ending lockdown,” Dr Stephen Griffin, associate professor at the Leeds Institute of Medical Research, tells HuffPost UK.
“And yet all of their actions are effectively pushing us towards having to have these cycles of lockdown and relaxing restrictions.”
Yet despite this, the CRG are still pushing for their plan. Leader Mark Harper on Sunday told told BBC One’s Andrew Marr Show it represented “a fairly cautious approach”.
Here’s why that’s nonsense...
What does the CRG want?
In short, the end of lockdowns and “a free life by 1 May”.
The CRG wants to lift all restrictions at the end of April so we can all go to the pub, hug our grandparents and get our hair cut for that massive wedding that’s been postponed since last year.
More specifically, they want schools reopened by March 8, pubs, restaurants and other hospitality venues to open in a “Covid-secure” way by Easter and then a complete lifting of restrictions at the end of April.
That sounds lovely
It really does. Unfortunately, however, we’re in the middle of a global pandemic.
But surely Steve Baker and the CRG know this?
You’d think so given they are actual MPs but their plan doesn’t really account for this.
So what are they basing their plan on?
In a letter to Boris Johnson signed by a total of 63 MPs, they state: “The vaccine gives us immunity from Covid but it must also give us permanent immunity from Covid-related lockdowns and restrictions.
“This should be a moment of unity – for our country and our party – as we look ahead with confidence, hope and optimism for a much brighter future, as we reclaim our lives once and for all.”
The group points out that by March 8 the government’s top four priority groups – including the over 70s, accounting for 88% of deaths and 55% of hospitalisations – will have received the vaccine and will be protected.
And by the end of April – when all the government’s top nine priority groups, including all over 50s, should have been offered a vaccine – they say there will be “no justification” for any legislative restrictions to remain at all.
“All restrictions remaining after March 8 should be proportionate to the ever-increasing number of people we have protected,” it adds.
That sounds perfectly reasonable and I am fully on board
It may sound reasonable but as mentioned earlier it completely ignores the realities of a global pandemic.
There are a number of things the CRG gets wrong, but let’s start with the very basic ones.
Firstly, the CRG assumes that a single dose of the vaccine means a person is “protected” from coronavirus. This is simply not true.
Early data shows a single dose offers 67% protection which is great but the full protection of the vaccines being administered in the UK require a second dose which needs to be given within twelve weeks of the first.
Assuming the rollout goes as planned, that means people in the most vulnerable groups mentioned by the CRG may not have full protection until July.
The CRG’s letter makes no mention of second doses.
Secondly, it doesn’t factor in that none of the vaccines are effective immediately – they are designed to trigger an immune response in the body which can take up to two weeks to fully develop.
So if the government went ahead with the CRG’s plan, it would mean a significant number of the most clinically vulnerable people would be forced to navigate a world in which there were no restrictions in place to protect them until their second dose of the vaccine kicks in which could be up to... nearly four months.
Oh that’s not good
It really isn’t, and we haven’t even gotten to mutant strains yet. But before we do, a third faulty assumption also needs pointing out.
The CRG makes no mention of the health impacts on young and non-vulnerable people, seemingly assuming they will be able to carry on life as normal with nothing to fear once the most vulnerable have had one vaccine show.
Again, this is simply not true. This weekend it was reported the number of patients reporting symptoms of Covid-19 weeks after becoming ill – long Covid – could be as high as 20%.
“It’s a complete misconception that this is just a disease of the elderly or the clinically vulnerable. It’s not and we have massive morbidity from long Covid,” says Griffin.
“We know that kids can get long Covid.”
Symptoms of long Covid include ongoing fatigue, loss of taste or smell, respiratory and cardiovascular problems and mental health issues.
What about those mutant strains?
We already have various strains of Covid-19, one of which is currently rampaging around the UK. Others have been identified as originating in South Africa and Brazil.
As yet there is no evidence that these will be more resilient or resistant to the vaccines that have been developed, but there is nothing to say this won’t change.
Viruses are live organisms and as such have the main principal drive that we humans do – to survive. Variations occur all the time and the ones that thrive are those that are more infectious and less deadly as they survive in the bodies of more and more people.
There are two major factors that increase the likelihood of a virus mutating. The first can be thought of as barriers to infecting people, which place more pressure on the virus to adapt to survive. Vaccination can act as such a barrier.
The second is how much there is circulating in the population. The more virus about, the more chance some of it will mutate.
Crucially, the CRG’s plan contains absolutely nothing to address how we would control the amount of virus in circulation – it simply assumes – falsely as already shown – that those most likely to die from it would be protected.
“While we mustn’t panic yet about variants we’re certainly seeing warnings that this virus can change,” says Griffin.
“And if we allow it to continue spreading and to continue causing disease then we are going to run into trouble.”
‘Trouble’ in this case is a strain of the virus that doesn’t respond to the vaccines we currently have.
Where could the CRG plan leave us?
A surge in Covid cases in autumn followed by a rise in deaths a few weeks later which, if severe enough, could prompt a national lockdown while scientists race to fix the vaccine which would then have to be rolled out across the country over the winter months.
Just a bit. What should we be doing?
The government has rejected the CRG’s plan, which Dominic Raab described as arbitrary and lacking any examination of “the impact that measures have had on the transmission and the hospital admissions of the virus”.
While this means coronavirus restrictions and more hardship in the short to medium term, on the flip side hopefully by this time next year we won’t be in almost exactly the same situation we’re in now.
The prime minister is due on February 22 to unveil his proposal for how and when the national lockdown will be unwound but said on Monday he wants the lifting of restrictions to be “cautious but irreversible”.
He warned the government would not “hesitate” to keep restrictions in place if the infection rate was too high.
“You can’t just vaccinate your way out of this,” says Dr Griffin. “We’ve never seen a coronavirus evolve into out population in this way, we don’t know what will happen. Why take a chance on giving it a means to escape?
“If you want to absolutely ensure and protect the fact that your vaccines do work and continue to work, don’t give it a chance to respond.
“That’s just crazy.”