Boris Johnson was vaccinated against his own optimism by the third lockdown – and the protection seems to be long lasting. He grumbles that there’s only one real certainty about Covid: when things go wrong, Britain tends to get hit worst. That certainly was the experience of last year – but the surprise, now, is that things are going badly right. He is now facing the very real prospect that his “scientific cavalry” has not only arrived but is fairly close to winning the battle against coronavirus.

The vaccines have worked, better than anyone expected. More effective and more eagerly sought-after than any modeller dared to imagine. British Covid deaths are now the lowest in Europe, having fallen faster than even in Israel. There are no more “excess deaths” – in fact, fewer people are dying, now, than normal. The data has for some time, been unremittingly positive. Several parts of the country have been virtually Covid-free for several weeks.

The idea that we might achieve herd immunity on Monday – as a model from UCL suggests – is unexpected. But entirely plausible. We heard about herd immunity quite a lot at the start of the pandemic, because this is how viruses die. Infections keep rising until a certain percentage of the population is protected – either by recovery, or vaccination. The figure of 60 per cent was mentioned at first. Other estimates go as high as 85 per cent: as ever, with Covid, no one is quite sure. But whatever the threshold is, Britain looks likely to hit it soon.

Importantly, this is now Government policy: to achieve herd immunity by autumn through mass vaccination. The target may be reached earlier: a Bristol University model says August. Perhaps UCL is right and we will arrive at this promised land next week. After which there should – in theory – not be much need for restrictions. It ought to be impossible for Covid to overwhelm the health service again. It would be an incredible prize, one of the greatest scientific achievements of our times. It’s not just possible, but probable.

But the timing? No one can know for sure. This takes us back to the debate about vaccine passports, the future of lockdown and a summer of travel restrictions. The current thinking inside No 10 is that lockdown ends on 21 June, with herd immunity by September 30. So what regime should exist in between these dates? How likely is the virus to stage a summer revival? What bridging measures, if any, should be in place? This is the basis of the reviews into social distancing, travel bans and the rest.

It’s a perfectly sensible argument – but one not yet being made in public. In part, this is because “herd immunity” is seen as a politically toxic phrase. Sir Patrick Vallance, the chief scientific adviser, used it once and was stunned to find himself accused of a secret plan to sacrifice the elderly. As he found out, social media helps hysteria spread faster than any virus. It was a brutal lesson in the new politics of pandemics: never mention the h-word.

Another reason to keep quiet about this is the still-huge element of doubt. If a new variant escapes the vaccine, or if recovery immunity is found to be short-lived, the whole herd immunity argument collapses.

Yet so far, the signs are encouraging. Pfizer claims to be 100 per cent effective in South Africa, home of the notorious variant, and the numbers of Covid reinfections worldwide are tiny. This gives ground for political optimism: herd immunity will (probably) arrive. Maybe not quite on Monday, but soon. And that ought to change everything.

This takes us back to the case for candour. Would it be so bad, now, to admit to a herd immunity strategy? There have been discussions in government about renaming it “community immunity” or “collective immunity”. It seems odd to be working towards a goal that can’t be properly explained.

But a lack of clarity causes problems, as we saw this week. The argument for young people being jabbed is to help achieve herd immunity, to protect others. But squeamishness about admitting this led to the bizarre situation where young people were told that vaccination is a matter of personal risk. One graph shown suggested that, given the low prevalence of the virus, the risk to under-30s from blood clots with AstraZeneca was almost the same as the risk from Covid. Both are very low risks, but it’s an unpersuasive message. As is dangling the threat of vaccine passports, as if to say: get the jab if you ever want to see the inside of a nightclub again.

A more direct – and honest message – may work better: get the jab to stop the spread. The statistician David Spiegelhalter puts it well. For younger people, he says, “being vaccinated is as much a contribution to the community and their relatives and the people around them”. The last year has shown young people making all kinds of sacrifices to fend off a virus that they know will barely affect them. It’s hard to argue that they would not respond to plain arguments now. Matt Hancock is toying with a new soundbite: “do your bit.” But it’s no substitute for a broader discussion.

Talking things through more openly may also improve the quality of decisions inside the Government. In one Whitehall meeting recently, there was serious discussion about new rules for hugging: should it be allowed outdoors, but not indoors? More worryingly, the taskforce setting the rules on international travel last week managed an entire strategy session without any serious discussion about the economic damage imposed by quarantines. In a country where over two million jobs depend on tourism, that’s quite an omission.

We saw something else in this week’s AstraZeneca debate: blood clots discussed calmly, as a balance of risk. To hear Dr Alison Astles urge people to “keep saving lives” by taking the vaccine, after her brother died of side effects, has been one of the most moving moments of the pandemic. It would be quite something if this sparks a change in tone – where ministers move beyond podium slogans and start a more direct, transparent discussion about what now lies ahead.



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