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Containing coronavirus through a second winter

Coronavirus pandemic updates

Eighteen months after the first lockdown, Britain is learning what it looks like to live with coronavirus. New cases are still averaging more than 30,000 a day — the highest, outside a July peak, since late January; more than 8,400 Covid-19 patients are in hospital. Schools, meanwhile, are open, sports stadiums bustling, and customers elbow-to-elbow in pubs, restaurants and theatres. Vaccines continue to weaken the link between infections and serious illness. Yet prime minister Boris Johnson and his advisers are right to caution that the pandemic is far from over. The government’s autumn and winter Covid plan steers a careful path between an excess of either caution or complacency.

Britain was swift to authorise and begin administering vaccines. It has been slower than some counterparts in jabbing 12-15 year olds and launching boosters for the vulnerable and the over-50s. It is right now to press ahead, even if belatedly, on both fronts.

The debate on the ethics of offering third jabs in wealthy countries before most of the population of developing nations have received a first one has been overtaken by events. Britain is joining most other rich countries in offering booster shots, sharing the desire to avoid jeopardising hard-won progress by allowing immunity to wane. But the UK should strive to go beyond its target of sharing 30m doses with international vaccination efforts by the year-end and 100m by next June. Johnson’s four-day visit to the UN this month is an opportunity to step up efforts to boost global supply chains.

After it was first to widen the gap between vaccine doses to 12 weeks, the UK is again going its own way by “mixing and matching” — offering BioNTech/Pfizer boosters to over-50s, many of whom initially received Oxford/AstraZeneca jabs. Research suggests this approach is the best way to boost antibody levels; other countries will closely monitor the results.

Britain is more of a follower in rolling out jabs to under-16s. Its advisory committee on vaccinations last week concluded benefits to individual children were marginal, set against the small risk of adverse effects. Many parents will welcome the decision by chief medical officers of the four UK nations that healthy 12- to 15-year-olds should nonetheless be jabbed. Doing so will reduce disruption in schools and debilitating long Covid — though allowing teenagers in certain cases to over-rule parents who do not give consent risks creating friction and ensnaring schools in disputes they would prefer to avoid.

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Plenty of risks still lurk. Winter, always tough for the NHS, could be complicated by a more severe flu season after lockdown led to very low levels last year. Scientists remain unsure if the super-contagious Delta variant will prove the most virulent version of coronavirus, or if more lethal or vaccine-resistant strains could emerge. It is prudent, then, for the government to make clear that a new lockdown, or lesser restrictions, cannot be ruled out.

It would be safer for Westminster to follow the government in Scotland — which has seen a sharp uptick in cases since schools returned in August — in requiring vaccine passports for entry to nightclubs and other large events before cases rise further. Johnson has at least made clear Covid immunity certificates are being held in reserve.

The Delta variant’s ability to spread even among the vaccinated means today’s “new normal” looks less like the pre-Covid world than was hoped when vaccines appeared late last year. Yet as the pandemic enters a second full winter it is ever clearer that without them, things would have looked a very great deal worse.

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