It’s an iconic moment in the classic movie The Great Escape. Steve McQueen reaches the barbed-wire border fence on a stolen motorcycle, the German soldiers are in hot pursuit. He circles to get a better approach, revs the motor and tries to jump to freedom.
We are willing him on, but the bike falls short and our hero is dragged back to captivity.
Today the British people are looking at the fence and contemplating our own final leap.
People have been left anxious, lacking in self-confidence, sometimes frightened to leave the house. The damage to mental health, especially for the young, will be with us for decades, writes Sir Graham Brady
For months we have been following a ‘road map’ to liberty with a promised end date of June 21. We were told that unlocking was happening so slowly in order to ensure that it would be ‘irreversible’.
Now it looks as though, like Steve McQueen’s, our hopes are dashed.
At every stage, we have heard siren voices warning that we were taking too big a risk, but at every stage things have gone better than expected.
Children went back to school and not only did schools remain safe, there was also no big spike of community transmission.
Then we were able to sit in a rainy pub garden.
Then, a month ago, we were allowed back inside to eat and drink in Covid-secure restaurants. Again this passed without mishap (we should remind ourselves of the Sage paper in September that said that the evidence was weak for closing indoor hospitality in the first place).
All the while, we have been powering ahead with our vaccines so that 98 per cent of over-50s now have Covid antibodies, either from vaccine or from a previous infection. For those aged 40 to 49 the figure is 85 per cent.
For 16 months already we have allowed government to control massive areas of our private and family lives
In other words, nearly everyone who was seriously vulnerable to this virus now has a good level of protection against it.
Our medics have also been busy improving treatments for people who do need to go to hospital. Dexamethasone is just one of the pharmaceutical interventions that has made a big difference.
There is interesting evidence for other drugs such as the standard steroid inhaler known to asthma sufferers everywhere.
So what now could possibly go wrong? You’ve guessed it – a new variant!
The Indian variant seems to spread more easily but all the evidence is that vaccination still gives good protection. In Bolton, where the variant first took off, the number of positive tests increased rapidly and then peaked.
The numbers going to hospital were far lower than in the earlier outbreaks and hospital admissions were seldom people who had been jabbed. Those hospital stays are often shorter and involve much lighter treatment, too.
A virus that has a nasty habit of targeting older people is struggling to find vulnerable hosts and is largely spreading through younger people who are much less likely to get seriously ill.
The result is that, despite the Indian variant, we are in a better place than was anticipated when the road map commenced.
On any reasonable assessment we should be still on target for lifting restrictions on June 21.
The trouble is that it’s not just the virus that mutates – so do the objectives and arguments of those who have always argued for longer and deeper lockdown. At first the justification for extreme measures was that it was just for a few weeks while NHS capacity was expanded to meet the challenge.
Then it shifted to a drive to get infections really low (Ministers always insist that they aren’t pursuing ‘zero-Covid’, but the result is the same).
Then it was necessary to lock down until the vulnerable groups were vaccinated.
Now they have moved on to avoiding not just this ‘variant of concern’ but every one that might ever develop in the future. If we accept this logic we will either never be released, or at best we’ll be doomed to a never-ending hokey-cokey of lockdown and reopening.
Once we accept that Covid is now an endemic disease that will return every year, sometimes in a mild form, sometimes in a more serious strain, we have to find a sensible way of living with it while using common sense measures to mitigate its effect. Improved hygiene and booster vaccines for the more vulnerable will be key to this effort, just as they are in the response to seasonal flu.
The Indian variant seems to spread more easily but all the evidence is that vaccination still gives good protection
The alternative of continuing restrictions would not come without cost.
Weddings that would be cancelled a third time, pubs and restaurants that would not see a way to return to profit. Even deeper public debt.
For people who don’t have the option of working from home – the shop workers, delivery drivers, care workers and many more – lockdown has been really tough.
Similarly, if you’ve got three small kids in a tower block with no outside space, being told to stay in really isn’t much fun.
For them, watching a succession of academics and behavioural scientists advocating further restrictions over Zoom calls from comfortable surroundings on the TV news must be galling.
For my many constituents in Altrincham and Sale West – and a million others – whose livelihoods depend on the aviation sector, getting planes back safely in the air isn’t something that can wait.
Without rapid progress to get the industry on the move again, hundreds of thousands of jobs will be at risk as disaster consumes a sector that used to be worth £200 billion to the economy. These are the obvious consequences, but there are others too.
For 16 months already we have allowed government to control massive areas of our private and family lives.
When are we ‘allowed’ to mark a birthday or a christening with family and friends? Can we meet a friend in a park or in our own garden? When is it permitted to start a new relationship with someone? Until recently we were even banned from leaving the country.
People have been left anxious, lacking in self-confidence, sometimes frightened to leave the house. The damage to mental health, especially for the young, will be with us for decades.
We have been infantilised by this minute control of our lives.
Now it is time to treat people like grown-ups, giving the best advice and support to people who want to get on with life knowing that they are protected by vaccine – or immunity following infection.
Human beings are social creatures. Spending time with family and friends, falling in love or exploring other places and cultures aren’t optional extras, they are the stuff of life.
It has been tough. But now it is time to pick ourselves up, dust ourselves off, thank the Government and scientists for doing a great job with the vaccines and get on with our lives.
There is no excuse for this further catastrophic delay. It is unacceptable to restrict people’s most fundamental rights. And it must never ever happen again.