The use of various restriction measures, including social distancing and the requirement to wear face coverings in certain indoor settings, were designed to help slow the spread of the virus before the availability, and the widespread rollout, of a COVID vaccine. The success of our rollout, however, and the vaccine’s effectiveness at weakening the link between infections and hospitalisation and deaths, now offers the most robust protection possible against the virus, and gives us the opportunity to begin to safely return life to how it was before the pandemic.
Three-quarters of the population in England aged 16 and above have now been double-jabbed and studies carried out by Public Health England (PHE) show that the vaccine is proven to be effective against all know COVID variants of concern. Two doses of the Pfizer vaccine has an efficacy of 87.9% against symptomatic disease from the Delta variant and a 96% efficacy against admission to hospital. The AstraZeneca vaccine is proven to cut the risk of symptomatic disease from the Delta variant by nearly two-thirds after two doses and has a 92% efficacy against admission to hospital. Immunisation is also proven to reduce the change of onward transmission of the virus by between 40-60%. It is estimated that 80% of the population has built up COVID antibodies (similar to Polio levels). The protection from the vaccine, rather than less effective mitigants such as face coverings and self-distancing, is what we have been building towards.
Recent data also demonstrates that the vaccination programme has been successful in weakening the link between infections and hospitalisation and deaths. Despite case numbers initially rising following the lifting of restrictions on 19 July, they have now fallen again, and the most recent seven-day average case figures are lower now than in the week before restrictions were lifted. Further, an average of around 750-850 people a day are being admitted to hospital in England with COVID, and there are currently around 6,000 people in total in hospital in England who have tested positive for the virus once admitted. This is down from the January peak of 40,000 people being in hospital in England having tested positive for the virus. The numbers of deaths from the virus is mourned but is now down to the similarly low levels of those killed on our roads.
I take the point that we could have the vaccine effectiveness plus face coverings and social-distancing. However, I would ask you to consider how this would impact our ability to move the public to the next stage of fixing the country from this pandemic. There are 5 million people awaiting elective surgery. Over half a million of these have been waiting for a year (compared to 1,600 waiting for a year before the pandemic started). The mental health challenge is in danger of ingulfing us. Equal challenges arise for catching up on education and getting incomes secured from those who work in sectors still affected from the restrictions (eg hospitality and travel). These health, education and employment challenges have been getting worse in the last few months, despite restrictions being eased, because we are not sending a clear signal that we are now on to the next stage and should be tackling backlogs and the other wider health and socio-economic impacts from the pandemic.
For those who reference the desire to continue with face coverings on the bus and train, I am sorry if you feel, despite the evidence above, that you personally need everyone to wear a face covering or social distance in order to safely return to public transport. I hope you will consider that you do not. If you are not reassured by the scientific reasons listed above, and the fact that coverings were for when we did not have the vaccine; it is also because we cannot expect people to use public transport when simultaneously sending out a message that it cannot be safe because, unlike other settings, it somehow needs an additional safety measure in the form of a covering. Evidence has demonstrated that public transport was a safer setting than many others over the last 18 months. Rail passenger numbers have been operating at approximately 40% of pre-COVID levels whilst the vaccine and face coverings have both been operational. I’ve been using public transport to commute since the start of the pandemic. If we do not get more people to join me, or ease social distancing requirements, then we will lose those services and people will continue to switch to the car. You may feel that more would return if all commuters wore coverings. I take the contrary view that the message and stigma, that public transport must somehow be unsafe, will actually deter passenger numbers.
Much of this comes down to individual risk tolerance. I understand that some will remain concerned, some will be ready to follow the timeline and some will regard it as later than it could have been. We are all entitled to our opinions. My own is that I believe that the COVID and non-COVID data and circumstances lead this to be the right time to ease the restrictions which everyone has done so well to follow. The public were told, when the vaccine efficacy permitted it, that life would return to normal.
I am confidence that people will be able to make their own informed decisions about how to manage the virus and get on with their lives.