If we don’t open up soon, we may never return to normal, writes Fionola Meredith
Finally, Boris Johnson has said something worth listening to. As the Prime Minister announced the end of Covid restrictions in England, he asked a crucial question.
If not now, then when?
The PM said: “If we can’t reopen our society in the next few weeks, when we will be helped by the arrival of summer, and by the school holidays, then we must ask ourselves: ‘when will be able to return to normal’?”
And here’s the clincher: “To those who say we should delay again — the alternative to that is to open up in the winter, when the virus will have an advantage, or not at all this year.”
I never thought I’d write these words, but Johnson is right. If we don’t exit soon, then we’ll be stuck in Covid limbo indefinitely, with all the horrific collateral damage that comes with that.
Of course, there’s been huge push-back — some of it suspiciously well-coordinated — against the PM’s decision to scrap face masks and social distancing.
If you thought the doom-mongering couldn’t get any more apocalyptic — well, it just has. And it’s only going to get louder and more hysterical, as those who demand the impossible task of suppressing Covid forever sense their power slipping away.
Reckless! That was deputy First Minister Michelle O’Neill’s hot take. No, Michelle, reckless is breaking your own rules to attend a massive funeral at a time when the virus was ripping unabated through the country and there weren’t any vaccines.
Judging by their actions, the NI Executive appears to remain in thrall to a Covid elimination strategy, with no end in sight to social distancing and face masks. If that’s the case, we can forget about returning to normal any time in the next millennium, because Covid is now endemic. It can’t be eliminated.
As the new UK Health Secretary, Sajid Javid, has pointed out, we must learn to live with Covid, as we do with flu. But our own Health Minister, Robin Swann, is having none of that.
Neither, it seems, is NI’s chief scientific adviser, Professor Ian Young. Asked if people here should get rid of their face masks, following the Westminster decision to scrap them, Prof Young said no. He said that the evidence that they offer protection was clear. Many eminent scientists have pointed out that the existing evidence on face mask efficacy is weak, and that cloth masks, in particular, are unable to filter aerosols — tiny virus particles now widely accepted as a key source of coronavirus infection.
So if Professor Young is aware of clear new evidence that shows masks work, then it is his duty to share it with us, the people who are legally forced to wear them.
Perhaps Professor Young could also explain why Florida, which ended all restrictions in September 2020, and went through the winter without mask mandates or lockdowns, avoided the predicted public health disaster. Indeed, despite an elderly population, Florida has done better than states like California, which locked down hard.
There will always be a reason to keep restrictions in place: the Delta variant, the rise in cases among younger people, and now the porous border with the Republic, where vaccination rates are lower. According to the modelling — which, as usual, we are not permitted to see — a new peak of cases is expected in August or early September.
If so, this would coincide with children returning to school, and no doubt the authorities would be averse to easing restrictions then.
After that, we’re into the autumn, and the annual rise in respiratory infections, and then the winter pressures on the NHS, and by spring a new variant will probably have emerged, and so on, and so on.
Science fiction? Wait and see.
The only alternative is to accept the sad fact that a certain number of people, the vast majority of them frail and elderly, will die each year from Covid.
Now that the link between cases and hospitalisations and deaths has been broken by the vaccines, the death rate in NI is extremely low. The most recent week for which there is official statistics shows just one death in NI involving Covid 19.
Every death is a loss, whatever its cause. Every death is one too many. But we don’t prevent people driving cars or drinking alcohol or smoking cigarettes, and these actions kill millions.
If Stormont insists on continuing to curtail our lives and livelihoods, then we must insist that they answer this one fundamental question.
If not now, then when?