With the news that almost a quarter of UK adults have now received a dose of vaccine, we can finally look forward to a brighter future. But what if we can't?
Vaccines appear to have promising up-front results but we have limited evidence of what they actually do long term. The vast majority of those inoculated should be protected but not everyone, which might include you. Different vaccines have different efficacy rates and we may not have sourced the best. Extending the gap between doses seemed sensible but was untrialled so might in fact be better but equally might not. Some vaccines don't look effective against certain variants so what if we're giving millions the wrong one? We also genuinely don't know if vaccination reduces transmission, other than a few promising early studies, so what if it doesn't?
Some people don't believe that vaccines are safe, or worse that they do harm, so what if their ignorant reluctance to be jabbed leaves the wider population unprotected? 80% vaccinated might turn out to be the much-fabled benchmark of herd immunity, but what if we never get there and circulation continues unchecked? It's all very well protecting the majority of the population but the millions left over are still perfectly capable of falling ill and paralysing the NHS by themselves. Throw in a new variant we're unprepared for and we might all be back to square one, or if it's more lethal somewhere worse. We've long been told that vaccination is our way out, but what if it isn't?
The government regularly dangles rosy visions in front of us, keen to keep the populace upbeat and in check, but is regularly proved wrong. Things could be normal again by June... but they weren't. Yes of course schools are safe... but best close them. Nothing will stop us from celebrating Christmas together... but it did. Sure you can book your summer holidays with confidence... despite any evidence they'll be going ahead. We have a prime minister hardwired to optimistic oratory because it makes him more popular and a tabloid audience who lap up his empty promises, despite him being the first world leader careless enough to end up in intensive care. This is not a man whose past record inspires confidence.
The first sign of returning normality is likely to be the reopening of schools. This is great news if you're a child, or the parent of a child burned out by home-schooling, but less of a gamechanger for anyone else. Reopening schools uses up so much of our headroom on community transmission that a return to hospitality and entertainment venues is going to have to wait. You may be sitting there dreaming of steak and chips, a freshly-drawn pint or a West End seat, but restarting centralised education merely kicks those further into touch.
Anyone dreaming of unrestricted travel and unfettered pleasure needs to lower their expectations. Even in the halcyon 'unlocked' days of last summer we got no further than outdoor theatres, spaced-out restaurants and two households meeting indoors. There is a reason why Glastonbury's already cancelled despite being four months off and the new Bond film's been re-postponed until October, which is that accountants have a much more realistic view of where this is heading than a million bored adults. It won't be possible to ease off the brake pedal fully until cases are back below an annoyingly low level because otherwise, even in a vaccinated world, the virus just takes off again.
Restrictions don't just go away courtesy of a magic vaccine, the fallout lingers. Social distancing, face coverings and enforced isolation will likely remain for a lot longer than most of us would like to expect. Easter won't be the end of it. Summer won't be ordinary. Christmas will still have rules and restrictions, it being in the middle of winter and everything, just hopefully fewer rules and restrictions than we have now.
And as all this has dragged on and on, the economic model we were once familiar with has broken down. Many businesses only made money by cramming as many people as possible into as crowded a space as possible, and this may no longer be acceptable. A ticket for the stalls, a seat in a grandstand or a tightly-packed economy flight won't still be moneyspinners if they're epidemiologically unsafe. Likewise crushed commuting can't return as part of everyday life if standing face-to-face still delivers a fatal risk, if indeed people choose to go back into their offices at all.
Worse, the closure of multiple businesses for months and months has caused many of them to collapse. High streets won't look the same when they reopen, with units shuttered and large flagship chains lost. The arts have been winnowed out, transport companies sent to the wall, tourist attractions bankrupted and the bedrock of our small businesses shaken to the core. The Treasury has saved many jobs through furlough but maybe only delayed their inevitable loss, particularly if shutdowns in certain sectors are further prolonged. Even when this entire pandemic is behind us, or at least substantially contained, the UK economy will be heavily damaged.
After a decade of imposed austerity this virus has substantially extended the downturn. The government has no money, other than funds it raises from browbeaten taxpayers and debts to be paid by our children. Local councils are in serious financial difficulties because central government pushed them to the edge in the name of efficiency long before this extraordinary situation blew up. Plans once deemed necessary are on hold and projects long dreamed of have been halted. The life chances of millions of pupils and students have been permanently dented because they couldn't receive the education we used to take for granted. Unless you're fortunate enough to be in a job that's proved capable of riding the lockdown wave, or have a significant financial cushion, the pandemic's only knocked you back.
Meanwhile the country's never been so cut off as borders become increasingly impermeable. We did a lot of the damage ourselves, voting to isolate ourselves from a neighbouring trading block then electing a government intent on maximising divergence. The virus did the rest, encouraging nations to restrict passage so that they could concentrate on fixing their own problems without importing anyone else's. Thus far the impact of Brexit has been muffled by the larger impact of the pandemic, shunting stories of import delays and unsold shellfish to brief mentions at the end of the news. Britons don't yet fully understand that freedom means friction because they've not been able to travel, but those who live for their foreign summer holidays are going to discover the uncomfortable truth soon enough.
Then there's the impact on our collective health caused by focusing the NHS on a single disease for months on end. All the other afflictions that would have caught up with us anyway are still there, untreated or unrecognised, potentially shortening our life or lowering its quality. It's going to take years just to catch up with the ongoing damage caused by not being able to look after our teeth. There's also the unparalleled impact on our collective mental health - the prohibition of human contact, the extraordinary toll of enforced isolation and the daily strain of simply staying afloat. Even if vaccination brings some semblance of normality soon, this damage is already done.
We may have won WW2 but you don't see many uplifting films about the decade that followed. The postwar years were a time of shortages and consolidation, of limited horizons and gradual rebuilding. It oughtn't to be quite that bad this time round but the pandemic has dealt a mortal blow to our previous trajectory. Our government is likely to botch the rebuild, because governments usually do, and to use the ongoing fallout as cover to embrace freewheeling policies that benefit the few rather than the many. A lot of us aren't likely to see a period of unlimited possibilities again during our lifetimes.
And the other big problems haven't gone away. Climate change lurks ready to cut us down, year by year and metre by metre. Social media has the power to fatally distort society, world poverty's going nowhere fast and who's to say when the next solar flare or nuclear incident is due. More pointedly, imagine if we went to all this effort to vaccinate the nation only for a resistant variant or entirely new pandemic to come along and take us down again.
We're banking so much on the power of mass vaccination to enable us to regain normality when in fact a substandard new normal may be the best we ever get. We can but hope that a way out of this current crisis exists, but it may not be as far out as we'd like.