Why the world needs a Covid-19 exit strategy
The public needs to know when, how and how quickly restrictions will be lifted
Financial Times – The editorial board
February 12, 2021
February is one of the busiest months of the year for travel bookings in the northern hemisphere. Families plan how they will spend their summer holidays and try to grab a bargain spot in the sun. Not this year, however. The uncertainty over how long coronavirus restrictions will remain in place means that while some have taken a risk and booked a break, most are sitting on the sidelines, unsure of what to do. This confusion is emblematic of the wider uncertainties that exist over the reopening of economies. Tired of severe curbs of civil liberties — which have lasted far longer than most anticipated — many people are asking when governments will finally set out a path for life to return to something like normal, how it will happen, and how fast.
This anxiety has only been heightened in recent weeks by signs that in some cases restrictions, instead of easing as lockdowns take effect, are in fact being toughened to guard against more infectious and possibly more deadly new mutations of the virus. In the UK, tough border controls will take effect from Monday for people arriving in the country, including jail terms for those offending. Germany is poised to reinstate border controls with some areas of Austria and the Czech Republic, while in Australia the state of Victoria has announced a snap five-day lockdown after an outbreak.
A global, well-funded vaccination campaign is the only way to end the pandemic for good. But despite relatively high inoculation rates in some countries, it is now clear that vaccinating enough people to achieve herd immunity will take much longer than hoped. Covax, the global initiative to distribute vaccines equitably, aims to deliver at least 2bn doses by the end of this year but that will not cover much more than a third of its target population. The new variants mean that some of the measures we have become accustomed to during lockdown will have to stay in place for some time. While some curbs on freedom will be accepted, others — bans on foreign travel and on seeing family and friends — cannot be tolerated indefinitely. A point will come where the public will rebel against restrictions that make life unbearably bleak. In the UK, scientific advisers are calling for a debate on the terms of allowing a “big wave of infection”.
The solution is for politicians to provide as much certainty as is possible. They must make it clear what will trigger the lifting of restrictions and what will not be possible in the short-to-medium term. In the UK, the government has so far produced little evidence of the costs and benefits of current restrictions.
Priorities must be set, supported by appropriate economic and epidemiological modelling. Concern is rife over the impact of the lockdowns on young people and the loss of education. Reopening schools must therefore be a priority. Teachers will need to be vaccinated. Fast testing and accurate and quick contact tracing is critical. How to reboot travel must also be a consideration. For this to happen, vaccination passports would be essential, but with the aim of facilitating travel, not prohibiting travel. A recent policy document proposes that areas in Europe where the virus has been eliminated are declared green zones in which civil liberties are restored. These zones expand as more regions achieve elimination. Such an approach, while appealing, will require careful, global co-ordination.
The pandemic has severely damaged economies and societies. As far as is scientifically possible, the public deserves to know the route out of current restrictions. It is time for politicians to play their part and move from crisis response to forward planning.