If the Prime Minister sounded downbeat as he gave the thumbs up to what was formerly known as Freedom Day on Monday evening, it is because so much of the data he says he is led by is pointing in the wrong direction.
Many will note this was also true a week ago, when Mr Johnson first telegraphed the idea of a “big bang” re-opening to the nation, but there is nothing like a deadline to sharpen the mind.
All the more so when the issue of the day involves reopening nightclubs on the one hand, and racking up an additional 5,000 to 15,000 Covid-19 deaths on the other – many amongst the young.
“OPENING July 19th!,” shouts the website of the adult entertainment venue Spearmint Rhino, which has clubs in Birmingham, Bournemouth, Leicester and London. “Come party with all the beautiful Rhino Entertainers!”.
Milkshake, London’s “biggest midweek rave”, will throw its doors open at 10.30pm to some 1,600 dance-starved clubbers the following day. The event, which is already sold out, is being held at the Ministry of Sound, a nightclub that was once managed by health minister Lord James Bethell.
Dark mood data
There are several key pieces of data that have darkened the mood in Downing Street.
They help explain why masks are back in vogue with ministers, why working from home is set to continue, and why the Prime Minister is now actively lobbying larger venues to check visitors’ “Covid status” at the door.
First, cases of the now dominant Delta variant continue to climb exponentially, with 34,471 new daily cases recorded on Monday. That’s less than a single doubling from the January peak – and it comes before clubbers start “giving it large” or Conservative backbenchers shout “chocks away”.
Where is the Indian (Delta) variant in the UK?
A possible signal of what may happen to case numbers after July 19 is currently being played out in Holland, where something akin to Freedom Day was declared three weeks ago.
On Saturday, the Netherlands reported more than 10,000 new cases – an 800 per cent increase compared to the previous week, with experts saying the R number has shot up as high as six.
“The Netherlands removed most of their restrictions, opened nightclubs, etc, and the Covid-19 delta variant has launched through their society like a rocket,” said Dr Robert Rohde, lead scientist at Berkeley Earth, who has been mapping the pandemic’s global spread.
In words that Mr Johnson will not want to have to repeat here, the Dutch caretaker prime minister, Mark Rutte, was forced to apologise to his country. “An error of judgment was made, we are sorry about that,” he told reporters in The Hague.
Mr Johnson will also be worried about hospitalisations, which have been on a clear upward trajectory since late May. This trend has not so much shown the link between severe illness and cases to be broken, but has reaffirmed it. In the last seven days alone, more than 3,000 Covid-19 patients have been admitted to hospital, up nearly 60 per cent on the week before.
The young are now being admitted to hospital – but levels are still much lowerv
To make matters worse, the current daily tally of more than 500 new oxygen-thirsty hospital admissions is some way above what modelling passed to ministers was predicting at the end of last month.
There’s still hopeful talk of better outcomes for Covid-19 patients, but ICU admissions are climbing fast and have more than doubled in less than a month.
Normality or disaster
The latest Sage papers, dated July 7 and published on Monday, also make for grim reading. Their central message is this: July 19 could be a stepping stone to normality or an unmitigated disaster – everything will hinge on how people across the country react.
“The scale of the resurgence in hospital admissions after 19th July is highly uncertain and depends on unknowable factors including how behaviours change in the coming weeks and months,” say the latest documents.
Modelling from the University of Warwick, also published Monday, underlines this point. If the nation very gradually returns to its pre-pandemic level of contacts over a period of about seven months, then hospital admissions will range from about 500 to 950 a day.
But if Freedom Day inspires the sort of big bang seen in Holland, hospitalisations could range between 1,300 to 4,800 a day, which at the upper level is close to the January peak.
“The peak of the resurgence will be much lower if the return to pre-pandemic behaviours is gradual,” said Sage. “Maintaining interventions such as more people working from home, the use of masks in crowded indoor spaces, and increasing ventilation, would contribute to transmission reduction and therefore reduce the number of hospitalisations.”
So what will happen on July 19, the day formerly known as Freedom Day? Mr Johnson has dropped all legal restrictions on socialising, as promised, but warned that if we overdo it we may bring a third wave down upon us as bad as the last.
Will all those booked into the Ministry of Sound, Spearmint Rhino and countless similar venues across the country have even been listening to Monday’s press briefing?
Some might think it a little late in the day now to stop that particular rocket from departing, but we’ll just have to wait and see.