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The UK needs Covid boosters, not boosterism

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Despite early vaccine success, the UK is now reporting seven times the number of cases of Covid-19 than western European peers, six times more hospitalisations and three times more deaths because of the virus. The country is still in the grasp of a pandemic. Not that you would know it from walking down an average high street in England, where all restrictions have been lifted and mask-wearing is rare (devolved home nations have different rules).

The public cannot be blamed for its collective abandonment of a pandemic mindset. The prime minister, Boris Johnson, boasted this month that the UK had one of the most open economies in Europe. But what the country needs now is less boosterism and more booster jabs. Alas, the government has failed in its public messaging around the need for third vaccinations, which it is only belatedly waking up to.

Nailing its campaign, starting on Friday, is crucial. The UK’s early vaccine success has made a rod for its own back: immunity against infection conferred by the vaccine — particularly that of AstraZeneca, on which the UK relies — typically wanes after about five months. By jabbing earlier than other countries, the UK has experienced a tail-off of the vaccine’s benefits sooner, just as a sub-variant of the more infectious Delta strain is emerging that may be cause for concern.

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Sadly, the methodical rollout witnessed earlier this year is now lacking. A third of the over-80s eligible for boosters are yet to receive one, while 67 per cent of 12 to 17 year-olds in England remain unvaccinated. While there may be a public reluctance to step forward, there has been confused messaging about boosters. The new vaccines minister, Maggie Throup, has not given a national broadcast interview since her appointment last month, and the last Downing Street coronavirus briefing before this week was on September 14.

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Into such a vacuum, health leaders have felt compelled to make increasingly desperate pleas to adopt a “Plan B”, involving vaccine passports, working from home, and masks. That may seem anathema to a government faced with an economy already suffering from supply shortages. The choice between health and wealth is always difficult but foot-dragging — so familiar over the past 20 months — increases the likelihood of needing to impose draconian measures that would be far more detrimental to the economy.

Simple steps now could still damp Covid’s resurgence. Wearing masks in crowded indoor spaces is one. While masks are not a panacea, they are a cost-effective measure. They also limit the advance of other infections, such as the flu, which is forecast to be widespread this winter.

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But it is ludicrous to expect the public to follow health secretary Sajid Javid’s advice this week to wear masks in closed spaces when his own colleagues refuse to do so. Scenes from the House of Commons show a divided chamber, with the Labour benches replete with masks and Conservative MPs resolutely lacking them. Responding to opposition demands that the government “set an example”, Jacob Rees-Mogg, the leader of the commons, explained Tories are not wearing masks because they “know each other”.

This partisan divide diminishes mask-wearing to just one more battle in pernicious culture wars. That has already happened in many other countries, most notably the US. Exploiting public health measures to score political points is dangerously irresponsible. It is not too late to prevent a winter Covid catastrophe but in order to persuade the public, the government must take its own medicine.

 

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