PROFESSOR BRENDAN WREN: Britain cannot be held to ransom by the vaccine refuseniks who risk a third wave
For a man who has set so much store throughout his political career on boosterism, Boris Johnson has been notably pessimistic about our emergence from the shadow of Covid.
On Monday, he dramatically warned that a third wave of coronavirus will ‘wash up on our shores’ from Europe.
It is certainly true that the news from the Continent is alarming. Germany has imposed an ‘Easter lockdown’ to curb a new surge in the virus, with Chancellor Angela Merkel saying the country is in a ‘very serious’ situation.
French authorities have re-imposed comparable measures across 16 regions, including Paris, affecting some 21 million people.
Italy, for its part, is facing its own full shutdown from April 3 to 5 during the Easter weekend. The prospect of British holidaymakers sunning themselves on Europe’s beaches this summer now hangs in the balance.
For a man who has set so much store throughout his political career on boosterism, Boris Johnson (pictured) has been notably pessimistic about our emergence from the shadow of Covid
But is the Prime Minister right — that it is inevitable that Britain will succumb to a third wave as well?
Certainly, previous dire warnings about the pandemic in mainland Europe being echoed here have turned out to be all too true. We all remember the scenes from hospitals in northern Italy at the start of last year, foreshadowing the terrible events that soon became our own reality.
But this time, I truly believe it’s different. And the reason for that can be summarised in one word: vaccines. So far, in an astonishing display of determination and logistical brilliance, we’ve managed to vaccinate more than 28 million people, more than half the adult British population.
This remarkable effort, combined with the effects of lockdown, has caused the number of Covid patients in hospital to plunge from a peak of almost 40,000 on January 18 to fewer than 5,500 yesterday, just as these numbers are rising for our closest European neighbours, who have vaccinated a fraction of the numbers we have.
Britain now has the world’s fourth most-effective vaccination programme and by far the most effective one in Europe: an achievement that has caused division and envy on the Continent and, sadly, will only mean its death toll is likely to grow.
Yesterday, remarkable new data from the Office for National Statistics showed that, last week, England and Wales suffered no excess deaths for the first time since August, the numbers in fact dipping 4.4 per cent below the five-year average.
Deaths were also below the levels expected in all but one region. Even the notoriously gloomy scientific adviser Professor Neil Ferguson now admits that the numbers show ‘the second devastating wave of the pandemic is behind us’.
So far, in an astonishing display of determination and logistical brilliance, we’ve managed to vaccinate more than 28 million people, more than half the adult British population. Picture: File image
So does that mean that Boris is wrong, and we can all breathe a sigh of relief?
Well, perhaps not yet. I’m not unduly worried about frightening-sounding ‘new variants’ of the virus.
Viruses mutate all the time, and scientists believe our current vaccines can be tweaked to deal with them. No, the only way that Boris’s worst fears will come to pass, and a third wave will arrive here, is if the vaccine rollout stumbles.
That might be because, as has been threatened, our European neighbours seize and divert the vital doses — although I am hopeful this will not take place.
It is far more likely that a worryingly high proportion of British people will continue to refuse the jab — preventing us reaching the crucial ‘herd immunity’, whereby the virus cannot spread because it cannot find enough people to infect.
We know, for example, that more than three million over-55s — including half a million over-65s — have still not been vaccinated, even though all are eligible and could surely have had the vaccine if they wanted it.
(The elderly, of course, are particularly vulnerable to death and serious illness from coronavirus. The average age of death of a patient with Covid is over 80: not far from the average age of death from any cause.)
So does that mean that Boris is wrong, and we can all breathe a sigh of relief? Well, perhaps not yet. I’m not unduly worried about frightening-sounding ‘new variants’ of the virus. Pictured: Professor Brendan Wren
Some people eligible for the jab have good reasons to have avoided it.
Pregnant women, for example, are not routinely being offered it on the NHS except in specific circumstances, such as if they work in healthcare or are at high risk of complications from the virus.
Many are thus choosing to continue to shield.
But they, perhaps, are in a minority. There are also large numbers of hesitants and refuseniks who are declining to have the jab.
In both Britain and Europe, the costs of this vaccine hesitancy are now all too clear. France’s history of ‘anti-vax’ thinking — up to 60 per cent of French people have previously said they wouldn’t take a Covid jab — is now surely playing its part in the country’s third wave.
Here, we know, sadly, that vaccine hesitancy is particularly high in certain sections of the black, Asian and minority ethnic [BAME] communities.
I was deeply concerned to read recently that 10 per cent of all BAME people in Britain have said they would refuse to have a jab — with that figure rising to 18 per cent among Pakistanis and 19 per cent among black people. Among the white population, hesitancy falls to just 6 per cent.
That’s worrying for many reasons — and not just because of the disproportionate toll it means the virus will wreak. In families where everyone is unvaccinated, the virus can spread through the whole household, even if some younger members are asymptomatic and don’t know they’ve been infected. We know, for reasons we don’t fully understand, that Covid has proved particularly deadly in the BAME population.
For everyone’s sakes, that’s why it’s crucial that politicians, and newspapers, too, keep hammering home the message that the vaccines are safe.
Unless enough people heed the message, the disease will continue to spread through vulnerable communities, risking the third wave that Boris so fears.
Half a million unvaccinated over-65s is still too many to feel comfortable about as we start to ‘unlock’ the country.
Though I tend to baulk at any suggestion of making vaccines compulsory, there is a good case for insisting everyone who chooses to work in a care home should be obliged to have a jab or find another job.
Care homes have borne the brunt of the pandemic in Britain. In the past year, about one in 14 people living in a British care home has died after contracting the virus.
Care homes have borne the brunt of the pandemic in Britain. In the past year, about one in 14 people living in a British care home has died after contracting the virus. Pictured: Nursing staff at the Langholme Care Home stand together and hold candles for the National Day of Reflection
For all the truly invaluable work they do, many care home workers are paid the minimum wage and often come from poorer communities.
There is simply no excuse for failing to ensure our loved ones in residential care are given the maximum protection, and that means making sure that their carers cannot transmit a potentially deadly illness.
Though I do not believe we are there yet, a third wave caused by vaccine refuseniks would devastate our return to normality. Britain cannot be held to ransom because of a minority who don’t understand the value of the vaccines, risking their own health and that of others in the process.
To borrow the sort of Churchillian phrase the Prime Minister so relishes — if a third wave does wash up on our shores, our only hope will be to fight it on the beaches using our incredible vaccines.
Brendan Wren is Professor of Vaccinology at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine.
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