As the percentage of vaccinated adult Britons rises steadily, and that end-of-July target gradually peaks its head above the horizon, many of us eagerly await a time when we can throw off our masks and meet our gather with our friends for the first time in over a year. However, many questions are still unanswered about the vaccine programme after it has run its course. Is this light at the end of the tunnel a false hope? What will Britain’s ‘new normal’ look like after we have achieved herd immunity? What have we learnt from the pandemic so as to not repeat the same mistakes again?
While Britain is surging ahead with vaccinations, this means very little without the rest of the international community keeping pace. The ever-present chance of new mutations threatens to undermine our vaccine success, and head of immunisation at Public Health England, Dr Mary Ramsay, warns that some ‘less severe restrictions’, such as face coverings in public and practising social distancing might have to continue until other countries roll out successful jab programmes, perhaps even for several years into the future.
Whilst still relatively minor, these restrictions might be the price of a more ‘normal’ way of life. Dr Ramsay justifies her statements by arguing that maintaining minor mitigation factors to reduce the transmission rate will be necessary to allow the economy to begin reopening: a sentiment echoed by a group of government scientific advisers. In my view, this can only be considered a fair trade. As we begin unlocking the country, with the prohibition on outdoor gatherings of six or fewer people having expired on 29 March, it seems that a degree of caution should be taken in order to avoid that all-too-familiar sudden spike in cases.
As we ease out of the (hopefully) last set of lockdowns, perhaps we should take the time to examine where we so blatantly blundered in the Coronavirus pandemic – why we seemingly had such a disproportionately difficult time overcoming the virus, while our East Asian and Antipodean colleagues weathered the storm far more easily. The chief executive of the Francis Crick Institute, Sir Paul Nurse agrees, stating that we need ‘a rapid investigation into the first part of the pandemic’ so we can learn and better prepare for the future. The UK’s reluctance to close down its borders, or issue mandatory hotel quarantine for arrivals until long into the pandemic was one of our many mistakes, and still, it seems the government is unwilling to expand the practice beyond the so-called ‘red-list’ of countries, potentially allowing mutant strains of the virus to circulate the UK unaccounted for.
Perhaps one upside of the virus has been a shift in the culture around hygiene and public health in Britain. Whereas in countries such as Taiwan, Thailand, Japan and South Korea, face masks been commonplace since before the pandemic if someone had flu (a disease with a significantly lower reproduction rate than Covid) to protect those around them, in the UK and much of the West, we have always been particularly laissez-faire when it comes to personal standards of public health. In Hong Kong, this practicality had even evolved into a fashion statement, with branded or patterned masks to serve as an additional way of accessorising. East Asia is all too familiar with dealing with respiratory coronaviruses, having been hit hard by the SARS outbreak in 2003 and here, the ubiquity of mask-wearing drives home the gravity of the pandemic. Meanwhile, many Western countries seem to have been caught with their metaphorical trousers down.
Of course, it didn’t have to be this way: our island nation analogues of Australia and New Zealand reacted quickly to news of the virus, quarantining returning ex-pats and closing the border as early as mid-March of 2020. However, now that every Briton is accustomed to carrying a mask around with them, with any luck the days of sick people getting on a crowded Tube without protecting those around them are long behind us. Likewise, the recurrence of similarly virulent or transmissible viruses is inevitable, not to mention the pre-existing Covid variants already spreading around the globe. We as a country need to normalise a baseline of personal public health responsibility, and reacting quickly to potential medical threats is a must.
Having experienced this past year, it feels cathartic to cast our minds back to the times before the word ‘coronavirus’ had entered our everyday vocabulary, and when our biggest concerns (which now seem almost trivial after these momentous 12 months) were how the country was going to come out of the Transition Period or what direction the freshly elected Johnsonite majority government was going to take the country in. Perhaps, we naively hope that mass vaccination represents a quick escape back to simpler times. Maybe mask-wearing, social distancing, and test and trace will go on for the foreseeable future. However, to me, it seems clear that the pandemic has affected Britain in ways that cannot truly be forgotten for a generation.