Comment by Andrew Sangster
The decision by the UK Government to extend the date for the final stage of removing restrictions in England has rightly been met by a storm of indignation by the hospitality sector.
UKHospitality estimates the four-week delay to the removal of restrictions will cost the sector GBP3bn and put at risk 300,000 jobs. CEO Kate Nicholls said: “A final lifting of restrictions is the only way to save the sector from disaster and enable it to play its part in a national economic recovery, to support the Government’s Jobs Plan, delivering jobs, growth and investment at pace and across all the regions.”
But so far, the UK Government is resisting calls to extend business support. UKHospitality stressed the need to extend the business rates holiday. Furlough, however, was not mentioned in the press release. This seems sensible as perhaps extending furlough would play into the hands of those wanting a continuation of lockdown.
If there is a ray of light from the news, it is that the emphasis is now on getting back to normality. The Government accepts that Covid is an endemic disease and cannot be eliminated. The zero-Covid desire of the most militant members of the healthcare establishment appears to have been rejected.
For the Government, the decision has been fraught. The reason given for the extension is the virulence of new variants, in particular the Delta variant that was first identified in India. This strain of the virus is not more deadly, according to the latest interpretations of the data, but it is more infectious.
The Government has previously said that the main reason for restrictions on activity was to prevent the health service being overloaded. On this test, it seems a marginal call to extend the partial lockdown. There are mixed views in the scientific community and, as we have argued in Hotel Analyst repeatedly, there needs to be a shift in risk assessment to one where threats have to be reasonably certain rather than simply possible. A switch away from the precautionary principle is needed.
But with almost three-quarters of the British public supporting continued restrictions, the political risks of sticking to the timetable of ending all restrictions on 21st June as originally planned appears to have dominated decision making.
If, as seems most likely, the worst-case scenarios of the virus forecasters do not come close to occurring, there should be greater support for a full and final reopening on 19th July. The Government website currently states: “It’s expected that England will move to Step 4 on 19th July.” Step 4 of the “roadmap” removes all legal limits on social contact.
The current risk of dying from Covid for people aged 18 to 49 is 0.05% [statistics from the US Center for Disease Control], or a 1 in 2,000 chance. As an indication as to what this means, the risk of dying in a car accident during your life is 1 in 240 in the UK and 1 in 107 in the US.
For people aged 50 to 64, the risk of dying from Covid is 0.6% or a 1 in 167 chance. In other words, slightly more risky than riding in a car in the UK, slightly less risky than doing so in the US.
For people aged 65 or more, there is a dramatic increase in Covid risk. You have a 9% chance of dying, or 1 in 11 (although the risk is heavily skewed towards the higher end of the age range). This, as for all the previous death statistics, is for unvaccinated people. Vaccinations change the outlook completely.
The latest data suggests that fully vaccinated people have a less than 10% chance of even catching Covid when exposed to the virus, with the risk of hospitalisation and death very much significantly lower. For vaccinated people, Covid presents less risk of death than in a normal flu season.
The risk of suffering long-term after-effects from a Covid infection are also significantly reduced for vaccinated people. The amount of the reduction remains uncertain but again, at the very least, it makes Covid a “manageable” disease for health services and presents individuals with no more of a risk of debilitating after-effects than for numerous other diseases with which society has coped for many years.
This then is the data creating hope that good sense will prevail on 19th July and society will again be allowed to operate as normal. There is already indication that the political calculus is shifting, with growing awareness that there are more risks keeping restrictions than removing them.
Lifting restrictions is the only way that the economy and wider society will be saved, let alone the hospitality industry. The Government and the electorate are surely now getting to this realisation.