Confirmation that a vaccine had been approved was one of those moments of pure joy that cannot be expressed in words. It was less of news than a shot of sheer euphoria that got straight into the bloodstream of everyone on earth. For the first time in a long time, in fact since the beginning of this whole lengthy process, you could imagine getting your life back.
Your real life. Not the half-life we’ve seen over the past year, like a black and white TV with poor reception. Your full color 4K widescreen TV life where dinner with friends isn’t a crazy luxury. Where you can hug people without wondering if you might just have killed them. Where you can walk through cities pulsating with activity and not alarmed or worried, just the calming pleasure of living in the midst of humanity.
It will take a while. People under 65 are unlikely to get the vaccine until summer, and probably long after that. But it’s coming. A light shines at the end of the tunnel. And in a winter as cold and wet and dark as this, that’s very welcome.
Of course, the government tried to ruin it as soon as it announced it. It was really amazing. This was an event that would have made even the most die-hard opponent of Boris Johnson’s administration felt at least a trace element of appreciation. But somehow they conspired to make sure that even this seemingly undisputed moment can be turned into an example of moral failure.
Health Secretary Matt Hancock, Chairman of the House of Commons Jacob Rees-Mogg, and Health Secretary Nadine Dorries all tried to turn the news into some kind of troubled Brexit victory ritual, insisting that it was only possible because we had left the EU. This is of course nonsense. During the transition we are still subject to EU rules. The UK regulator approved the unlicensed vaccine on the basis of a flexibility built into the regulations for precisely this type of eventuality.
It’s not a coincidence. It reflects the quality of EU regulations in all possible areas. You see the same thing with the state aid rules, from which the UK had to apply for a derogation in order to strengthen the capacity of customs brokers before the end of the transition. This is an enlightening moment. The question arises as to why you would die in a ditch to get rid of these rules, as the UK negotiating team is currently doing in talks with Michel Barnier, as they seem to be able to do anything they want. Honestly, without wanting to sound like a hopeless remainer, EU rules are just pretty well designed – not always, but for the most part – with a bit of compliance, a bit of flexibility when needed.
The Brexit argument was weak and the government stopped using it very quickly. The Prime Minister’s spokesman diligently avoided making the same point that afternoon. Even Education Secretary Gavin Williamson, who has never come across a suggestion so simple to grasp, was smart enough not to repeat it Thursday morning. Instead, he opted for a playground fantasy about how Britain was the largest country on earth.
The Brexit spin was bothersome and also quite dangerous. The introduction of the vaccine requires public trust. This requires trust in government news. If senior ministers cannot hold themselves back from an anti-bedwetting tribal party meeting every time they make an announcement about it, that confidence will be undermined.
But still, they couldn’t totally ruin it. For all their nonsense, there was hope at the end of the tunnel.
The thing about the vaccine, however, is that it has a counter-intuitive effect on the present. You feel more firm about the rules now by offering hope of freedom in the near future.
Not that long it was really not clear how quickly it could arrive. There were pessimistic whispers about a vaccine that may have lasted a very long time and that life would become the new normal in the years to come. This had an impact on our risk calculations.
If this was the new normal, you had to take certain risks with covid transmission to reduce the risks to social isolation and mental health. You couldn’t tell the grandparents that they couldn’t see their grandchildren for years. You couldn’t leave people alone without an end in sight. But now that the vaccine is a reality, it changes that calculation. It means this will be over in not so long time. So it makes sense to be more firm now that we are committed to it.
This creates a painful possibility: we will only pass the virus on to someone we love for a few months or even weeks before they would have been protected from it by the vaccine. In retrospect, that will be a terrible prospect. A couple of months will seem like the snap of a finger from the perspective of 2025. But those who die from this thing will still be gone.
That means those who, for economic reasons, are demanding loose control are now twice as stupid and short-sighted as they were at this time last week. They push for human sacrifice with no logical basis to decide. It’s a completely pointless waste of lives if we just have to sit stuck a while longer – and the government has to escalate financial support.
Same goes for Christmas. We know what this will mean. People will go home to a multi-generation event where their family will be inside, often with the windows closed to keep the cold, drinking and laughing out – basically a worst case scenario for the broadcast. They will hug because they are with their loved ones and the human mind finds it almost impossible to believe that this most natural and healthiest act could possibly be harmful. They will let go of their guard.
The government opened for Christmas for two reasons. First, because no government thinks it can ban Christmas, and second, because they concluded that people would go home anyway. The first is a cynical and selfish calculation, the second a more pragmatic one. But both lead to the same place: to tragedies that don’t have to happen.
For those of us who are still trying to get through this period, the vaccine’s viability means we should look at our behavior more strictly than before or than the lockdown skeptics or the prime minister now. We have to be more careful, not less. We have to be stricter. Because if we hold out just a little longer, it will be the dark and distant past instead of the terrible present. And, despite the government’s protracted nonsense, it is worth ignoring and prioritizing that sentiment in the months ahead.
It will all be over soon. Who knew how much fun it would be to write such a simple sentence.