Lockdown - Reflections at the end of week 55

On the 9th April last year, Boris Johnson was moved out of the intensive care unit at St Thomas’s Hospital having turned the corner in his personal battle with Covid. With the benefit of hindsight and our subsequent experience of how dangerous the virus can be to those who contract it, it is curious to reflect on how close we may have come to a British Prime Minister dying in office for the first time since Lord Palmerston in 1865. Somehow, it didn’t feel like that at the time, perhaps because of the speed of events and our relative lack of understanding of the capacity of the virus for causing serious illness and death. As infection rates fall, and death rates fall more quickly, we may start once more to forget what a dangerous adversary we have been dealing with, which is something that impinges on the week’s three main talking points.

The debate about the Astra Zeneca vaccine and its safety has, more than anything, highlighted risk assessment and how good or bad at it we are. I feel a degree of sympathy for Astra Zeneca who are not, by background, a vaccine developer or manufacturer. They have made resource available for research and manufacturing and are supplying their vaccine at cost. In return, they have been picked off consistently by regulators and politicians, particularly in Europe. The risk identified would appear to be a one in a million event, which represents a significantly lower probability than the risk of death from Covid. It is also, by way of broader context, a hugely lower risk than the risk of dying in a road accident in the UK. Whilst a poll commissioned by The Times and published this morning indicates that 75% of those asked still consider the Astra Zeneca vaccine to be safe, the whole debate shows the tendency which has been current for some time to highlight danger but not accompany that highlighting with an assessment of risk. For some, this leads to a life affected by fear and anxiety. At the other end of the scale, it leads people to get into difficulty where a tendency to rebel against the advice of figures of authority is not accompanied by a rounded understanding of the nature and probability of the risk that rebellion entails. The British Government and the MHRA are both putting forward that broader risk assessment but are at times struggling to make their voices heard against less balanced expressions of the risks involved.

Unusual alliances have developed in the discussions around vaccination passports with politicians from as diverse viewpoints as Jeremy Corbyn and Sir Ian Duncan Smith supporting a pledge against their introduction in England on the grounds that they would be divisive and discriminatory. There is also a concern that they would represent a back door to the introduction of identity cards which has long been a civil liberties battleground. The hospitality industry is not keen, expressing concerns about pub staff being at the forefront of enforcement, and, on a commercial note, concerns about young people not being able to visit pubs unless they have been tested in advance. On the other hand, a number of leading sports bodies have expressed support for the idea as a means of being able to bring spectators back into sports venues, whilst stressing that any measures “must not be discriminatory, should protect privacy and have clear exit criteria.” Michael Gove appears to be in charge of this one. He will need to find the wisdom of Solomon from somewhere and the law of unintended consequences is lurking, ready to make an uninvited appearance.

Last but not least is overseas travel. People want to go overseas on holiday and airlines, airports and holiday companies are under financial pressure. On the other hand, cast your mind back just over a year when the trickle of people who came back into the country and showed symptoms were bussed to isolation hospitals until they turned into an unmanageable wave, or to the recent international spread of new Covid variants, both of which militate in favour of a cautious approach. The Government is opting for caution so far, but has not escaped criticism, in particular over the cost of the form of test on return to the UK that it has opted for. In the meantime, the domestic tourism industry is reported to be looking forward to a strong year as it looks likely that staycations will be the order of the day for most of us.

On Easter Day, my family took advantage of the weather, ate our lunch outside and remained outside into the evening. The cold weather that followed has felt like being hit by a sledgehammer and the weekend’s forecast for wintry showers is not a happy one. Time to throw another log on the fire as we wait for the return of Spring.

Enjoy your weekend and wrap up warm.

Ian Waine
Senior Partner