The Guardian view on rising coronavirus cases: axe the mixed messages

Across the UK, the sun is blazing, with temperatures in the low and mid-20s, including in north-west Scotland. Is the government’s pandemic response now also “running quite hot”, in the memorable phrase attributed to Michael Gove last year? The expression meant that Mr Gove was, relatively speaking, averse to Covid restrictions – that he was among those, in government and outside, who were prepared to countenance a higher level of risk from new cases in return for a reduction in the economic and social risks associated with lockdowns.

In the intervening year, the opposition between economic and health impacts that was used to frame the politics of the pandemic, in its initial stages, has been debunked. Since exponentially rising cases lead, inexorably, to the most severe measures, it was delusional as well as dangerous to imagine that the virus could be allowed to circulate. What difference does the successful rollout of the vaccination programme make? This is the question now confronting policymakers, and everyone else with decisions to make about how to live in the current circumstances.

At some point we all hope, along with ministers, that a vaccinated population will be able to exist in a much more normal way, with any localised outbreaks of disease quickly controlled. It should not need saying that this point has not been reached. With the daily number of new cases up more than 1,000 on last week, Glasgow in lockdown and high infection rates in parts of England including Leicester, Bolton and Hounslow in west London, the danger of a third wave remains. Some experts believe it is already here. While 58.5% of people in the UK have had a first vaccine dose, second doses have been given to only 37.9%. Up to three-quarters of new Covid cases are thought to be caused by the India variant, which is no longer limited to a handful of hotspots.

Correctly, the government has pressed pause on plans to lift the remaining restrictions on 21 June. But it cannot sit on its hands until taking the decision on 14 June. The recent issuing of new guidance including travel restrictions for the worst affected areas in England, without informing them first, was high-handed and ham-fisted. Yasmin Qureshi, Labour MP for Bolton South East and a shadow cabinet member, complained of being gobsmacked”, and rightly so.

The messaging around international travel too is increasingly fraught and opaque. Andrew Flintham, the managing director of Tui UK, said “moral confusion” was the consequence of rules saying that people are allowed to visit amber list countries, but shouldn’t. The overwhelming impression remains one of a government led by a man who does not want to risk his personal popularity by spoiling anybody’s fun. Instead, he and his ministers deflect responsibility on to individuals who have only a fraction of the information and expertise at their disposal.

This is not wise government. We don’t know yet to what extent rising case numbers will translate into hospitalisations or deaths. We do know that terrible mistakes were made last year, and that the NHS will be unable to clear a vast backlog if there is another crisis. Senior NHS figures including Chris Hopson are calling for a “better quality of evidence-based debate”. Of course, people want to enjoy the summer, but it is Boris Johnson’s job to help them understand the risks. When lives are at stake, clarity and honesty must come before pipe dreams.

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