Those of us in the UK are living in a strange bubble. While much of Europe is mulling new restrictions and my home country, Austria, begins a 20-day lockdown today, life in London continues pretty much as normal. There are few masks, vaccination remains largely optional (but there’s a high uptake) and no restrictions on movement. Still the mood remains tense: an uptick in coronavirus cases and hospitalisations is liable to make any society nervous.
Do we have it right? Or should we be following Europe into lockdown? In March last year the answer seemed obvious: the UK had reacted far too slowly to the first wave of infections. But this time I’m not so sure. It’s notable that even someone like Chris Smith, British virologist and Monocle’s always-sensible health and science correspondent, told me that the UK needs to hold its nerve and not be drawn into another round of restrictions. Countries should be focusing more on consequences than the overall number of cases because the consequences of getting coronavirus for most of those who are vaccinated remain minor. For another thing, Smith says, fixating purely on coronavirus at this stage ignores the many other respiratory infections and diseases that have built up as we prioritise the pandemic.
Perhaps more importantly, with vaccines readily available, we have essentially reached a phase where the virus is endemic. “We are going to have to get used to living like this,” Smith told me. That means figuring out a strategy for the long haul and not the short-term. It also suggests that there should be a laser-like focus on raising the number of vaccinations rather than locking down entire societies. Given that, it is striking that Austria experimented with a lockdown for the unvaccinated for less than five days before announcing a lockdown for everyone. Protesters, such as those in the Netherlands this weekend, can’t have it both ways – if you don’t accept the vaccine then you can’t complain about the lockdowns that ensue. Ultimately, this is about fairness. There are those in Austria who will continue to protest vaccine requirements (pictured), who argue that they should have a choice and not be coerced into doing something they don’t want to do. But surely the same principle applies to the rest of us, who otherwise have no choice but to be forced back into our homes.