What with all the excitements of last week – the rock star mayor of Manchester winning a moral war in spite of losing a tactical battle, the prison doors slamming shut on more swathes of the population, another Treasury rescue for desperate businesses – you might have missed what could have been the most significant development in the debate about this endless crisis.
Sir Patrick Vallance, who has until now been an avowed purveyor of the official Government doctrine that finding a vaccine will be the ultimate solution to the problem of Covid, made a statement to a Commons committee which blew that idea out of the water. Appearing before the Joint Committee on National Security Strategy, the Chief Scientific Officer asserted that the notion “of eliminating Covid is not right”. Even if a vaccine was available by the spring, it “would not wipe out the virus” which would, in fact, become endemic in Britain. We will simply have to live with this disease, he said, and learn to manage it in the best possible way.
Excuse me? What are we arguing about then? As I understood it, the experts who were demanding repeated lockdowns of varying degrees in ever more numerous locations were basing their entire case on the promise of eventual deliverance by a vaccine. When those of us who were protesting against these measures claimed that they were, in the literal sense of the word, inhuman, we were assured that they must persist Until We Have a Vaccine. Any case that was put forward for managing the virus in ways that did not involve the shutdown of life as we knew it was dismissed outright and, indeed, caricatured in outlandish terms, as if everyone opposed to lockdown was a callous fanatic.
The official doctrine occasionally tripped over its own feet when the experts, and even the Prime Minister, blurted out the terrible possibility that an effective vaccine might never be found. But those moments of doubt were always cancelled out as soon as any lockdown sceptic uttered the unanswerable questions: “So what happens then? How can we ever get out of this doom loop?” There would then follow a rapid scuttle back into the accepted dogma: we must continue with this self-inflicted destruction Until We Have a Vaccine.
To make it absolutely clear, the two opposing sides of this dispute were: on the one hand, on-and-off lockdowns are the only solution in the absence of a vaccine, and, on the other, we should learn to cope with the virus by protecting those who are most at risk for as long as necessary while allowing the rest of society to return to something like normal. But Sir Patrick’s devastating remarks change the parameters of this discussion entirely.
Let me put this as plainly as possible. If a vaccine is not going to put a definitive end to the virus, and we are still going to have to manage it in the most effective ways that can be found – why won’t Government ministers even engage with the possibility that we should be managing it in sensible, less destructive ways right now? Boris Johnson dismisses the idea that the vulnerable elderly could be given such special protection in half a sentence: it is “unrealistic”, he says, because so many of them live in multi-generational families. But that is surely not an insoluble problem – if you treat this as a serious possibility.
It is a pity that Andy Burnham’s spectacular campaign against the Government came down in the end to a rather squalid haggle about a (relatively speaking) small amount of money when there was a more interesting argument to be had over the suggestion by Sir Richard Leese, the leader of Manchester City Council, in favour of simply protecting the high-risk population. I would bet that at a fraction of the cost that the Treasury is spending to support zombie businesses, a full service of care, and even alternative accommodation, could be offered to those who are in real danger. If younger family members wish to care for them, special provision could be made for them too.
It cannot be beyond the wit of officials who are currently spending their time drawing up vastly complicated tier restrictions (and enormous amounts of money ameliorating the effects of them) to devise ways of managing the risks to specific groups with compassion and sensitivity. All it would take is a political decision to grant that such a proposition is acceptable. And Sir Patrick himself – the voice of “the science” – has just said that it is not only acceptable but inevitable.
But it has probably gone too far for that. The Government is in too deep, locked into a plan with devastating consequences that has no obvious endgame or criteria for escape, even though its experts and spokesmen contradict one another – and themselves. At last Thursday’s press conference, Sir Patrick did not reiterate his game-changing statement to the parliamentary committee.
He reverted to the status quo ante position of probably no proper vaccination programme until next spring (which is not quite never) and made no mention of the prospect that even that would not get rid of the virus. So which version of his opinion is the one he actually stands by? Does Boris Johnson secretly know the answer to this? He was visibly relieved at the press briefing by what he called Sir Patrick’s “optimism” about a vaccine. What is the Government’s actual view?
Do they condemn the “managing risk” option in defamatory terms just to make their own claim to be taking a middle way between extremes – national lockdown vs protection of the vulnerable – seem reasoned and sensible? Unfortunately, these questions are not being put into the mainstream debate, largely because the broadcast media journalists who dominate Downing Street press conferences are too busy scoring easy points about the failures of track and trace. So the same non-questions are asked, and the same non-answers are given. And Government ministers spew out more and more fatuous bluster. Matt Hancock said last week that “with science on our side” we will win this fight. Does he really believe that “science” (as opposed to particular scientists) can be on anybody’s side? I despair.