Four months ago, the UK took the decision to end all remaining legal Covid-19 restrictions, becoming the first major country in the world to do so. While some said it was too soon and that it would lead to a surge in cases, hospitalisations and deaths, this has thankfully not been the case. Instead, we have replaced the protection from lockdowns with the protection from science in the power of vaccines.
Seeing and taking part in the incredible scenes around the UK to celebrate the Queen’s platinum jubilee just over three weeks ago showed just how far we have come in living with this virus. But even though we can rely on vaccines to protect us from severe illness or death, a virus as transmissible as Covid will not be eradicated. I have consistently said that Covid “will always be around” and that we should “live with Covid as we do flu”.
It was striking, therefore, to read yet more alarmist stories last week about the rise in Covid-19 cases, with some even calling for the reintroduction of restrictions. There are some saying that the pandemic is not yet over.
As the man who led calls for restrictions during the pandemic as health secretary, I understand the worries that people have; this is a truly horrible virus. So many people have died, here and around the world, and many more have had awful experiences with the disease. But I also know that we now have the tools to deal with this virus and any calls for restrictions should be categorically rejected.
The question I ask those who want more restrictions is where does it end? We said throughout the pandemic that our strategy was to suppress the virus until vaccines could keep us safe. Nearly 9 in 10 people aged 12 and over have had two vaccine doses and nearly 7 in 10 people aged 12 or over have had their booster vaccine. In all, more than 149m doses have been injected into our arms. This is an incredible feat considering we were told in January 2020 that a vaccine might not ever be available, and could take up to 10 years to create.
While the latest Office for National Statistics survey shows that infections are rising, we are not seeing nearly the same levels of hospitalisations or deaths as we did before the vaccine. Figures published just last week show that an estimated 99.3% of the population have antibodies – whether through infection or vaccination.
So as a result, although infections are rising, we are not being swamped by yet another Covid wave. Just as we come forward each year for our flu inoculation, we must do the same for our yearly Covid vaccine. The solution to rising cases is not lockdowns or restrictions on our liberties, but vaccines.
This is not just the case in Britain, but around the world. Covid is a global virus, so needs global solutions. Because while Covid is endemic here, it is still having a major impact on much of the developing world. I read with great pride that Covid vaccines reduced the global death toll by almost 20m in their first year. The UK should be proud of its contribution to this global effort.
The UK government, working with Oxford University and AstraZeneca ensured that our vaccine would be available at cost around the world. We waived any charge for intellectual property for the Oxford vaccine to allow more areas to manufacture vaccines and increase global supply. Almost two-thirds of the global population have received at least one vaccine.
An estimated quarter of these have been delivered with the Oxford/AstraZeneca jab – and because we supplied it at cost, that proportion is much higher in developing countries. It is a huge credit to the whole team that 179 countries now use the Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccine.
As well as this very direct contribution the UK was also one of the earliest backers of the Covax scheme and invested over half a billion of taxpayers’ money into the scheme so we could help the world get vaccinated.
There is clearly more that must still be done. We must be ready for variants that evade the vaccine, as well as for the next pandemic, and other new diseases. But let’s not fall into the trap of yet more restrictions and scaremongering. This will just set us back further. Let’s instead back the team to deliver the vaccines we need to protect us all and make the most of our freedoms.