July 13, 2021 • Reading time 2 minutes
From Monday, the law will change, and all of the COVID restrictions will cease to exist – UK Freedom Day 2021.
A bit like Christmas Day, Freedom Day is likely to turbocharge the rate of infection. A similar policy change in the Netherlands led to an alarming increase in infections and a formal apology from the Dutch Prime Minister.
The UK is more vaccinated than the Netherlands. And this protection has helped to slow the spread, but the Delta variant has sped things up. The overall impact is that total infections have been rising for weeks and are currently at the same level as mid-December.
Despite the vaccination, many people will become infected – like my reasonably-fit-and-healthy-fully-Pfizered dad, who has spent the last two weeks in bed or wheezing and puffing.
The good news is that the relationship between infections, hospitalisations and deaths has improved, and the fear that variants would evade the vaccination have not materialised.
The chart below shows the relationship between infections and hospitalisations. It shows that over three times as many infections are needed for the same number of hospitalisations seen in the winter. This relationship may improve further as more people become fully vaccinated.
This changed relationship means the widely reported comment from Sajid Javid that infection could rise above 100,000 a day would be unlikely to translate into as many hospitalisations as were seen in January (although it does get close). And if the virus is spreading among vaccinated people (like my dad), then why wait?
It is clear on NHS-Twitter that another wave of COVID is the last thing the exhausted NHS needs on top of its growing and deadly backlog. But it is hard to win an argument with anyone fed up with the curbs on their freedom or frustrations imposed on their business. Why wait?
Aside from the immediate effect, there will be a longer-term effect on public health, such as long COVID. The evidence suggests that being fully vaccinated reduces both the likelihood of getting infected and, if infected, of getting long COVID symptoms. The number of people getting long COVID is a relatively small proportion of those infected, but the burden may fall on the most economically active.
There is an argument that a further delay would provide time to fully vaccinate more people and provide some much needed additional protection. But this seems even less likely than cancelling Christmas, so probably masks will hang around or return soon.