The ending of almost all Covid restrictions in England didn’t have to be chaos day

Boris Johnson Credit: PA

Welcome to 'freedom day', or more properly 'chaos day' - with businesses warning they can’t operate because too many employees are being 'pinged' and told to isolate, and the clinically extremely vulnerable terrified to leave their homes for fear no one will be wearing a mask.

The funny thing is that all this madness was foreseeable. Because, as the PM himself said only a week ago, the surge in infections is almost exactly what his epidemiological advisers on Sage have been forecasting.

But the government is behaving as though all this mess is just an accident, one of those things. It wasn’t. It was the choice of Boris Johnson and his Cabinet.

They could have absorbed the implications of the infections forecast, made months ago, and decided to keep the law on mask-wearing in place a bit longer. They opted against.

They could have thought about the risks to business of not being able to plan staffing levels and turned the infamous pilot, where daily lateral flow testing replaces 10-day quarantine, into a national prophylactic scheme.

They haven’t.

They could have compelled highly social businesses, like nightclubs, to only admit the double-vaxxed or those with proof of a negative antigen test.

They opted for advice not compulsion.It is almost as if they are shocked that their own infections forecast came true, as if Gove’s contemptuous dismissal of "experts" during the Brexit referendum is a way of governing.

But imagine if the Bank of England said "we’ve got this sophisticated and expensive economic forecasting department, but we’ll ignore what they say and instead set interest rates at the rate we think in our bones is what’s right for British people".

We’d all think the governor had gone barmy.

Per contra, Boris Johnson’s MPs seem to believe his policy response to his own official forecasts is rational.

They wanted today’s freedoms, irrespective of the data or the cost.

For what it’s worth, Johnson’s official forecasters are now saying that the daily infection rate may double to 100,000 in perhaps just 10 days.

The likelihood, they think, is that with schools closed, it will level off then.

In the meantime, there’ll be disruption to transport and shop opening hours, as more employees are compelled to isolate at home.

And many hundreds of thousands of frail people will feel second-class citizens, prisoners in their homes, because venturing out brings excessive risks.

It may get worse.

To borrow a term of art from the Bank of England, the current risk to the infections forecast is to the upside.

If school holidays don’t dampen transmission in the anticipated way, and if the current doubling rate holds, there could be 150,000 infections in not much more than two weeks.

That is what the government’s advisers tell me.

The good news is those experts still say that because so many of us have been vaccinated, peak deaths even at 150,000 to 200,000 infections a day would be in the range 250 to 400 a day - so probably less than a quarter the maximum in the last wave.

And because treatments have improved and those in hospital are typically younger, the typical length of stay in hospital is shorter - so bed occupancy should not hit the 36,000 peak seen in January and would probably be no more than half that, even in a worst-case.

That said, if daily admissions to hospitals reach thousands a day again, which is likely, the hideous backlog of operations and other NHS remedial work would worsen again.

And by then the economic cost of widespread business disruption would almost certainly swamp whatever financial gains had been made from reopening nightclubs and the events industry.Would Johnson at that fateful juncture modify or reverse some of our newly returned freedoms?

Would even his most libertarian supporters start perhaps to doubt whether the right not to wear a mask on the bus is the moral absolute they thought.To paraphrase him, if not then, when?

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