Updated: Jun 24, 2022
This article has been written by contributor Harry Ward
Around this time last year England crashed into its second Covid-19 lockdown. At the time, the Government was criticised for a lack of planning, a lack of decisiveness and a lack of foresight. Now, one year on, England not only has a Plan A, but it also has a Plan B. Whether this indicates the government has learnt from its mistakes is still largely disputed. Currently, we are living in Plan A – that is, more or less, life as ‘normal’, with limited social distancing and regulations. What is Plan B? Why might we need it? What would its effects be socially, politically, and economically? These are the questions that this article will address.
Plan B is the name given by the Government to a range of extra regulations that could be brought in to protect the NHS from overwhelming pressure this Autumn and Winter if Covid-19 cases were to once again to flare beyond control. Restrictions listed under Plan B include:
· Communicating urgently the message that the public must behave more cautiously
· Introducing mandatory Covid-19 passports
· Reinstating mandatory face coverings
· Advising people to work from home
These measures have not been implemented yet, though doing so would align England with the measures already in place in Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland.
What might trigger Plan B? The Government has said that it will monitor hospitalisations, deaths, cases, and the overall state of the NHS in deciding whether to trigger Plan B. The exact point for each of these factors is, however, unknown. Sajid Javid mentioned in a briefing at the end of October that these measures weren’t needed yet. However, the NHS Confederation disagreed on the same day, arguing that such a plan ought to be implemented immediately.
It must, therefore, be questioned, which of the two is closer to the truth? The numbers are thought provoking. Covid-19 cases are actually on the way down as of November 7th, with the last 7 days producing roughly 10% fewer cases than the previous 7 days. However, this time last year cases stood at around 23,000 per day – enough to trigger a lockdown – yet considerably less than the 30,000+ per day recorded recently. What has changed is the widespread introduction of vaccines, which has resulted in a decrease in the crucial figures of deaths and hospitalisations. Therefore, whether Plan B is needed in the next few months will depend heavily on whether the vaccine continues to be effective in reducing hospitalisations and deaths. To ensure this efficacy, the successful rollout of booster jabs is crucial. This is certainly the Government’s line of attack, with Javid urging the public to get the booster jab in order to avoid Christmas restrictions. This suggests that there are still vital policy decisions to be made in order to establish how best to encourage the vaccine take-up and to combat vaccine hesitancy. Assuming a strong competency among policy planners, the Government may not even even have to consider implementing Plan B at all.
Whether Plan B will be implemented or not remains to be seen – if there is anything the last 18 months have taught us, it is that you can’t predict the future. However, should the extra measures be implemented, what would the effects be? Would the positives outweigh the negatives? The science is clear, extra measures will reduce Covid cases, hospitalisations and deaths. This is in itself a good thing; fewer cases mean not only less suffering, but also less pressure on the NHS and less possibility that the virus could mutate and become immune to current vaccines.
Despite this, extra measures always have spillover consequences. Firstly, economically, a Cabinet Office document suggests that Plan B would cost the UK up to £18 billion if in place until the end of March 2022. This would be a massive hit to an already recovering economy and is extremely politically unfavourable for a Conservative government entering a vital stage of its tenure. Rishi Sunak’s new budget aims to regain control of public spending once again and the way in which the Conservative government manages the economy post-pandemic is incredibly important for their attempted re-election.
Secondly, mandatory covid passports for certain venues would exclude a considerable portion of the population, especially those of younger ages who have chosen not to (or who have not been able to) get vaccinated. This could potentially have negative impacts on the group’s mental health as many members remain socially locked down. Plan B might mean the reintroduction of bubbles in schools which have caused so much disruption to education in the past. Such an arrangement, however, would be slightly different this time around with whole classes not being sent home like last year. Regardless of how it would be implemented, it will undoubtably lead to further educational disturbances.
In conclusion, Plan B could be the next, and entirely necessary, step in the fight to control Covid-19. Then again, it could not. The key consideration is whether current measures can keep numbers low enough that Boris Johnson and his team need not even consider Plan B. What we do know is that Covid-19’s immense impact on a variety of policy areas in the UK will continue for the foreseeable future.