New cases in China and New Zealand highlight the risks of coronavirus resurging, and show why Britain must do better
It isn’t over. In England, shoppers flock to stores, as eager for novelty as acquisitions; some children at least are back in school; even zoos have reopened their gates. The sense of relief, however tentative, is palpable. It is also premature.
As lockdown eases, uncannily familiar news emerges from China. After weeks without a locally transmitted case, an “extremely severe” outbreak linked to a food market has spread to half of Beijing’s districts and to other provinces. The capital has raised its emergency level, suspended schools and cancelled hundreds of flights. In New Zealand, which had seen no cases for 24 days and had lifted all domestic restrictions, two new arrivals have tested positive and 320 of their contacts are being traced.
These developments are a potent reminder of the persistence of coronavirus and the dangers of second waves. Internationally, 100,000 new cases are being confirmed daily. Even places that seem to have weathered the worst must stay alert to the risk of resurgence, the World Health Organization’s chief has warned. There is no guarantee that a vaccine will end the pandemic, and even if an effective one is found it is unlikely to be delivered quickly. That a cheap steroid, dexamethasone, seems to significantly reduce the risk of sick patients dying is a welcome piece of good news; but it only reduces the terrible damage wreaked by the virus. Wearing face masks and keeping a distance from people can cut transmission and slow the spread, but not end it.
Yet China and New Zealand also show that we do not need to stand by and let coronavirus do its worst. The costs of doing so are evident in the US, where six states are seeing record numbers of cases. Mike Pence, the vice-president, is at least correct to argue that people should not be talking about a second wave – but only because this is a continuation of the first.
In contrast, China is pursuing eradication. It is testing hundreds of thousands of people within days, for an outbreak which has so far involved just 137 cases. Contrary to some suggestions, authoritarianism is not the key to curbing the spread of the virus; Taiwan, a vibrant democracy, has been extraordinarily effective. The answer is not the most draconian measures or unhindered surveillance but rigour. In New Zealand, the prime minister, Jacinda Ardern, has been clear that the new cases reflect an unacceptable failure; the infected pair had been released early from quarantine without being tested.
Even in Europe, where the focus has been on containment and mitigation, Britain is an outlier. It waited longer to lock down; abandoned testing; failed to provide adequate PPE or recognise the risk to care homes. England has led the way in relaxing restrictions while infection and death rates are still high; and is still struggling to implement an effective test and trace system. The contact-tracing app expected in spring is now promised for winter. The prime minister boasts that “we have turned the tide”. The government will reportedly tell 2.2 million “clinically extremely vulnerable” people that it will end food and medicine deliveries to them from the end of July and that they no longer need to isolate themselves at home. Yet the UK reported 1,279 new cases on Tuesday and 233 deaths.
Downing Street is now driven by opinion polls and alarming economic indicators, not science. Increasingly, its strategy looks like telling people – including the most vulnerable – that it is safe enough and they can take their chances. There are worrying signs that some are growing laxer in keeping a distance. But it is hard to blame them when they are gaining unwarranted reassurance from authorities. Others are, rightly, sceptical. There can be no real return to normal as long as they fear they are endangering themselves by returning to old habits.
The effects of lockdown have been punishing, and are most painful for those who were already disadvantaged. But we should not accept a false choice between never-ending domestic isolation and penury on the one hand, and risking large numbers of lives on the other. A rigorous system of test, trace and isolation can protect us. After so many disastrous errors, the government must get this right.