The fear is that more infections give the virus more chances to mutate, which increases the risk of a new variant. Given that people’s protection largely comes from vaccines, this could result in strains that are even better at evading our existing immune response. And for the UK— a country that has largely depended on vaccines to save it from covid-19—such an outcome would be disastrous.
Some evolutionary biologists say we should take some comfort from the fact we are starting to see the same mutations pop up repeatedly, a phenomenon called convergent evolution. That may suggest that the virus is running out of ways to adapt.
But Skirmuntt, who studies how viruses evolve, says vaccine escape is a scenario we should fear, whatever the chances. She likens it to running around in a field of land mines.
“The chance that somebody will step on a mine is much higher when there are several thousand people running around it instead of a couple,” she says.
What we know: the rest of the world is watching
Plenty of countries, including the Netherlands, Spain, Australia, and Sweden, have dropped restrictions only to have to reimpose them all over again. Even in the US, where restrictions have varied from state to state, some places are walking back their decisions: the Los Angeles County, for example, just reintroduced a mask mandate after a surge in cases.
On July 12, just two weeks after lifting some public safety measures such as the closure of nightclubs, the Dutch prime minister, Mark Rutte, had to apologize as he reinstated some restrictions.
The Netherlands has a lower vaccination rate, so comparisons are not perfect—but perhaps there would be a lesson in there for England, if it chose to heed it.
The government’s “irreversible” stance may already be softening. At a press conference last week, prime minister Boris Johnson seemingly downgraded it from a firm promise to a “hope,” adding: “Obviously we must rule nothing out.”
Whatever happens, a lot of countries are closely watching where things go next for the English.
“Everybody is looking at the UK to work out what’s happening,” says Obregon, the former WHO epidemiologist. “We’re observing something for the first time, and everybody else will be learning from our behavior.”
The reality is that whatever happens on “Freedom Day,” the exit from the pandemic was never going to be a single event. It is going to be painful, long, messy, and iterative.
The idea of throwing off all restrictions still feels scary to many, especially after 16 months of a relatively regimented existence. But the end of a pandemic always involves some transfer of risk, says Medley.
“In a pandemic, governments generally try to control and manage risks. By the time you get to the end, it’s not really down to the government anymore, beyond offering education, guidance, and health care. We’re in that in-between phase where the risk is being passed from government to individuals.”
Skirmuntt is less sanguine: “The pandemic will stop eventually. They always stop. But at what cost?”
Correction: this article has been amended since publishing to include the most recent vaccination statistics for the UK adult population.