With their usual zest, British tabloids dubbed July 19th Freedom Day, or, more simply, the day the UK entered the fourth phase of its reopening plan. That was the day, with a delay of four weeks, that most of the remaining Covid pandemic related restrictions were lifted in the UK. Some restrictions remain in place, such as the need for workers to self-isolate when pinged by the official contact testing and tracking app, and local authorities continue to impose their own restrictions, such as on the London Underground but by the large and all in all, most of the restrictions from the pandemic era are gone: wearing masks is now voluntary, not compulsory (unless otherwise stipulated), social distancing (already honored in injury, rather than compliance for the last many weeks) is one of the Past and the capacity limits in restaurants, concert halls, theaters and other public places have been lifted.
There is much to criticize about UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s handling of the pandemic, and there has been much criticism from epidemiologists and other experts about the decision to reopen fully in the face of soaring infections, and even more worrying is the increase in hospitalizations and deaths, in large part due to the ubiquity of the Delta variant, which is highly transmissible and has stronger immune defense properties than traditional Covid virus – meaning it can be done for those who are already fully vaccinated to get infected. While the full rate of vaccination in the UK is around 50%, people under the age of 18 have not been vaccinated. Anecdotal evidence also suggests that despite nearly half of all Britons now vaccinated, some parts of UK city centers, including London, have vaccination rates below 30%. All of this means potential trouble.
Against this background, it is noticeable that Johnson offered this reason for the reopening in the form of a rhetorical question in a video message shared via Twitter on July 18 (bit.ly/3eQqocT): « If we don’t do it » Now we have to ask ourselves, When are we going to do that? ”As he also noted, due to the high vaccination rate (but remember the caveats above), new infections are now largely decoupled from new hospitalizations A number of states in the United States underpinned – mainly in the « red » instead of the « blue » states, which is based on the opinion, which is increasingly being heard from political conservatives in the Anglo-American region, that Covid is another, albeit one, after vaccination should be viewed as particularly nasty flu and cannot be the basis for endless bans and restrictions.
As your columnist has noted on previous occasions, lockdowns and other restrictions designed to flatten the curve of Covid infections present a major difficulty that has been posed by the use of unconventional monetary policies, particularly quantitative easing (QE), following the global financial crisis similar is: how and when do you get out? Just as the processing of QE was repeatedly delayed in the US and other countries and then reversed by the outbreak of the global Covid pandemic, the exit from bans and restrictions in most advanced western countries has been extended either indefinitely or continuously.
The difficulty of finding the right time to end restrictions and reopen the economy depends, on the one hand, on the tradeoffs between the economic, psychological and other benefits of reopening earlier and the cost of increased infections, hospitalizations and deaths from reopening – Opening up, and as predicted by all standard epidemiological « agent-based » models (although your columnist has also pointed out the lack of this class of models in ignoring public behavioral responses).
But that’s not the whole story. An additional justification for caution arises from political and economic considerations. I would guess other things are the same, if an earlier reopening goes well, the public will likely see the incumbent politician who pushed it a little more positively at best. On the other hand, if things go badly, the incumbent is likely to be massively blamed by the public for reopening early.
This crucial asymmetry in the « payoff matrix » (in the jargon of game theory) for the incumbent politician between the two scenarios will of course lead to caution, probably greater than would be justified on the basis of a scientific cost-benefit analysis alone, or, put more simply, an earlier one Reopening on good terms can give the incumbent a bit of a boost, but it doesn’t guarantee re-election, while something bad goes almost certainly to an electoral disaster. It is therefore much safer for a prudent politician to be overly cautious with a view to the next elections and to delay the reopening beyond what is socially necessary.
A perfect example of this is the continuation of lockdowns and other restrictions in Canada, whose precautionary measures taken by political leaders contrast sharply with Britain; in view of similar full vaccination rates in both countries. There is no doubt that Johnson is taking a huge risk with Freedom Day – you can be sure that political leaders around the world will be watching with great interest.
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