January 18. It’s getting nearer. Last week a 93 year-old friend and neighbour was vaccinated. Today it is announced that my cohort, the 70-plus and clinically vulnerable, are to receive invitation letters (in fact this morning’s post brings only a bank statement and the latest edition of the Journal of Cultural and Social History, ojoy).
Despite earlier fears, this is a party which most of us want to attend. The latest survey conducted by the Office for National Statistics (ONS) reveals that 86% of the population said they were ‘very or fairly’ likely to accept a vaccination in the period 7-10 January, up from 82% in before Christmas. Most of the remainder were either uncertain or had already had it. Only 3% responded that they were ‘very unlikely’ to take one, the same figure as those who by then had been vaccinated.*
Given the inescapable presence of hard-core conspiracy theorists in any population, this is as near to an general acceptance in principal as might be achieved at this stage in the process. I argued in an earlier post (‘Anti-Vax’, July 7) that the numbers unloading to pollsters their grievances against the state, research-based science, big pharma, transmission masts, were likely to shrink once the hypothesis became a reality, and this appears to be happening.
According to the official timetable, the priority groups are to be vaccinated by mid-February, with the whole of the population gaining protection by September. There remains a question of whether this is the most sensible strategy.
We don’t need to endorse the view of our old friend Lord Sumption, who is in more trouble this week for mis-construing the obvious and mis-describing the reality. He argued in a current affairs programme yesterday that the elderly were “less valuable” than the young, elevating simple arithmetical fact that they have fewer years to live into a profoundly unacceptable dismissal of their lives. And as with others opposing the lockdown regime, he was factually plain wrong in claiming that the restrictions on socialising do not reduce infection across the population.**
The more interesting question is whether the young should be left to last. The 70-plus is not the most infected section of the population, and therefore not the most likely to infect others. We received last week a communication from Shropshire Council indicating that the rate for the elderly in the county is half that of the 20-29 age group. Nationally the ONS finds a similar distribution, using slightly different age-bands. On January 2, 3.16% of the 15-24 age group tested positive, with a steady decline across the cohorts to 1.06% for the 70 and over.**
At face, these disparities are not surprising. The retired do not need to go out to work, and less likely to be found in shopping precincts, bars and all-night raves. My frail elderly neighbour who has now received his vaccination has been wholly locked down since the end of March, irrespective of the fluctuations in the official rules and advice. He is absolutely no threat to anyone else. The same is pretty much true of my household. Where they have gone out of doors the 70-plus were found by the ONS to be more likely than the 16-29 cohort to answer positively to the question ‘have you avoided physical contact with others when outside the home?’***
Furthermore the young appear to be suffering psychologically more than the old. The current ONS ‘overall, how satisfied are you with your life nowadays’ score rises steadily from 5.9% for the 16-29 cohort to 7.3% for those now due to receive their vaccination invitations. There is an even sharper disparity in the loneliness measure, ranging from 13% to 5% for the same groups.****
So the young are having a tougher time and are more likely to catch and transmit the virus. Why not vaccinate them first?
The short and irrefutable answer, pace Lord Sumption, lies in the age-specific rates for hospitalisation and death, together with the obvious need to keep fit those caring for the ill and the elderly, and to prevent the NHS from being overwhelmed to the cost not only of Covid sufferers but those with any other serious illness. But there is a price to be paid for this strategy. Assuming the vaccination roll-out continues as promised, the mortality rates will fall much faster than those for infection.
It really will be the autumn and not the spring before it will begin to be safe to resume anything like our normal lives.