Misaligned chronologies: Covid-19 restrictions, Christmas, and vaccine

England has come out of a four-week Covid-19 lockdown yesterday and entered into a three-tiered system of restrictions. The England-wide lockdown has thankfully slown down the spread of coronavirus. The numbers of people admitted to hospitals and staying in hospitals have fallen, though it is still quite numbing to see so many lives being lost every day. There were fears that the peak of this wave could be worse than the spring, however as of this moment the worst seems to have been avoided. Another piece of good news is that the MHRA has approved the Pfizer/BioNTech coronavirus vaccine for use which is said to be up to 95% effective.

I live in London, that is to say in tier 2, and as such pubs have reopened, and there were punters inside when I walked past the local establishment last evening. Even though I will not be down at the pub downing pints and scoffing Scotch eggs (yet), I welcome the fact that businesses are open again and really hope that the tiered approach works. If the infection rate can be further reduced and the vaccination programme proceeds well, then there is a really strong sense of hope, even if not immediately. Perhaps there will be something resembling status quo ante Covid at some point next year.

Such optimism is rather alien to a naturally pessimistic and miserable soul like me. I have a few concerns. Events and developments can proceed at different speeds and take different courses. The choreography of chronologies may be difficult. There are three timelines that do not fit easily with one another: (1) easing of restrictions yesterday, 2 December 2020; (2) further easing of restrictions over Christmas allowing mixing of households indoors between 23 and 27 December 2020; and (3) mass vaccination.

It is hoped that the number of new cases continues to decline in all areas of the country. However, such a welcome development may turn out to be a potential headache for the Government, especially in the tier 3 areas where people would rightly ask their status to be changed to tier 2. What if the contrary occurs, and there are increases in infections? What if tier 3 measures prove to be insufficient? What if there is an increase in the infection rate in the tier 2 areas? Those in tier 2 would oppose being moved to tier 3, but a failure to move such tier 2 areas would fuel the strong sense of unfairness and injustice felt by those in tier 3.

Whatever happens to the infection rate, up or down, the easing of restrictions over Christmas will not change, as I do not think the UK and devolved governments can countenance a tightening of the regulations. Besides many people are likely to ignore restrictions if such were imposed and still gather for Christmas. Easing of restrictions is fraught with the risk of the virus spreading into different areas, as families and friends meet together from different parts of the country. I would be looking quite nervously at the data in the US following Thanksgiving. It would be especially dangerous if there is a spike in the lead-up to Christmas.

Even if a mass vaccination programme were to start now, it would not be ready for Christmas, as my understanding is that two doses of the vaccine are required, 21 days apart, and becomes fully effective 7 days after the second dose. In other words, a minimum of 28 days is required for the full effect. In any case, the logistics of vaccination is a huge undertaking, and it will take months and many people willing to get the jab before there is anything resembling a herd immunity.

Whenever restrictions were eased, coronavirus cases increased thereafter. As such, a reimposition of Covid-19 restrictions is expected to take place in January 2021, as it is very likely that mixing of households over Christmas will increase the number of coronavirus infections. That seems to be the trade-off the Government has offered to the people of Britain. If things go badly, then people will wonder why the restrictions were eased at the beginning of December, rather than just before Christmas, when the spread had not been sufficiently suppressed.

There is light at the end of the tunnel, but we are still very much in a dark tunnel. There are reasons to be hopeful, yet the feeling of dread weighs heavily.