What is the UK Covid-19 Strategy?

Is opening up in the face of significant case numbers genius, or morally reprehensible?
27 July 2021


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Listener Sean’s wondering what is the UK strategy and what’s the evidence it will, or won’t work?


Public health professor, Linda Bauld, pontificates on the pandemic:

Linda - I guess a lot of us in public health had been asking what's the UK strategy all the way through it. I mean, I think the UK, like many countries in Europe and perhaps North America at the beginning didn't know what to do and maybe prepared for the wrong pandemic. There's mentions of they were preparing for a pandemic perhaps with something a bit like influenza with flu. So I think we've kind of been lurching through different strategies, which are not the same as, for example, Southeast Asian countries, who'd experienced previous epidemics, where they had a good contact tracing. They knew they needed to ramp up testing. They needed to look at their borders because this virus is something that people pick up and then they transfer it to other people and a really good place to do that would be, for example, if you're traveling from one country to another, of course, you're going to take it there. So the UK has not had a clear strategy at all.

Linda - And the question now is I think what's happening is we're merging two different narratives or stories or beliefs about how to deal with this. There's a camp of scientists, quite a small one, but they still exist that say, well, what you really need to do with an infection like this is to let it go through the population. So people get infected who won't be at risk or will be at lower risk and that's particularly younger groups and they will then build up natural immunity. And then there's another group who think, well, actually we don't want anybody to get this virus. So we need to get everybody vaccinated and keep quite tight restrictions on households mixing, so kind of lockdowns longer than we currently are. And the UK government's trying to meet somewhere in the middle. We've had two big lockdown periods, three depending where you were in the UK. And now they've decided because it's the summer, they're going to open things up when you've got all of the adult population who've been offered the first dose of a vaccine and two thirds, almost two thirds, who've had a second dose. And so that seems to be the current plan, but I guess the really challenging thing about it at the moment is we are opening up so-called "Freedom Day" in England with all legal restrictions lifted at a time where we have over 50,000 cases a day and projected to go up to over a hundred thousand and some of our hospitals are under strain. So it's really, really tough.

Chris - And would you therefore say that in fact it's the wrong manoeuvre?

Linda - Well, I think there's different harms from this virus. I think all young people in particular will know that the harm to them. Small numbers have had their health harmed, but they've lost education, social contacts, lots and lots of restrictions. And then of course you've had jobs that have been lost. Employment has suffered. People have had mental health issues they've had to deal with. These are other kinds of harms. And then we've been cut off from our loved ones who live in other countries and haven't been able to travel. So I think the government is really emphasizing that at the moment. If you were just looking at my field, public health, and the priority for us is to protect the health of the whole population and the health of the whole population is under challenge from a pandemic, you would deliver more vaccines. You would keep restrictions in place for longer, until we were more confident about the way ahead. That's not the path that government has chosen. And now we're in a big natural experiment. The world is watching and we'll see what the outcomes are.


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