Mass vaccination should be regarded as just one element of a holistic strategy. The UK Government itself has stressed that the public should continue with social distancing at least until the entire adult population has been offered a vaccination. However, there are other measures which would not only help us to end this pandemic more quickly, but would complement the vaccine roll-out and ensure that there were no more lockdowns.
First and foremost, there should be a properly functioning Find, Test, Trace, Isolate and Support system, run by local public health teams and co-ordinated nationally by the NHS and not by private companies with poor track records and no experience of health care.
Local public health teams can do this work efficiently and effectively, finding cases, tracing their contacts, carrying out testing and getting quick results, supporting people to self-isolate, and break chains of transmission. This will drive down case numbers further.
Spaces where people gather, including schools, workplaces and other public spaces, should be made safe for everyone. The Health and Safety Executive and local government officers should inspect and certify them, and central government should fund this properly. The rights of trade union health and safety representatives to inspect workplaces should be upheld, and workers should be able to withdraw from unsafe situations.
Workplaces should be given both guidance and financial resources to take measures such as improving ventilation, ensuring social distancing and increasing hygiene. If this was properly done, people could be confident it was safe to return to work. Hospitality venues, gyms, libraries, hairdressers, theme parks and the like could also be subject to certification and inspection regimes. Spaces that did not meet the standards required would be shut down.
All four nations of the UK have been in lockdown since the start of the year, with some areas enduring severe restrictions for even longer. This, alongside the vaccination programme, has helped to drive down infection rates, and our sacrifices must not be wasted. Rates must be driven down further and kept low by putting in place the measures described above.
We cannot ‘live with the virus’. We need a strategy of elimination, which will stop transmission in our communities, depriving the virus of hosts. Then, we can go back to our lives without fear and without avoiding other people. Our economy can thrive, we can go back to work, and we can even attend mass gatherings – and all this can be done without ‘vaccination passports’. A whole swathe of other countries have done this, including Australia, Finland, Uruguay and South Korea.
These mitigation measures need to be supported by controls on international travel, including safe, free quarantine, not connected to immigration enforcement, to prevent the virus from re-establishing itself, especially the newer and more dangerous forms. As long as the virus circulates, it has a chance to mutate, which could give rise to vaccine-resistant strains and undermine the vaccination roll-out.
The UK Government has allocated £37 billion, an eye-watering amount of money, to its dysfunctional, privately run test and trace system. If such funds are available, they should be spent on protecting the public properly.
Infectious diseases are not usually dealt with by quarantining the whole population. Bring rates down, keep them down, stop the virus from circulating and mutating, find cases quickly and support infected people to self-isolate.