In all the difficult judgments the House of Commons has had to make during the pandemic, this is perhaps one of the most difficult, and I entirely respect the argument of those who have come to a different conclusion from me. As ever, this is about a balance of risks: between the delta variant and the risks of ongoing restrictions, which are not insignificant. The Government’s strategy has not changed; it remains to vaccinate, prioritising the most vulnerable. That cannot require everyone to be vaccinated. That is neither scientifically necessary, nor practically achievable. The significant change is in what an effective response to the delta variant now seems to require: two doses of vaccine, not just one. I see the significance in that of the difference between the 57% of the adult population with two doses now and the 76% we should reach by 19 July. That argument allowed me, just, to support the Government in extending most restrictions until the 19th July, but I made two other points in the debate on the extension of those restrictions.
The first was that the logic of this extension is to protect the NHS from a significant increase in hospitalisations from covid-19, and this protection comes at a high cost to the economy and to the rest of society. So we need to take full advantage of it, whether in reducing the backlog of treatments for other medical conditions or in giving NHS staff a break before what may be another difficult winter. It would help if Ministers could explain what we are doing with the time and space this extension is buying us. The second point was that I am extremely concerned about what our recent decision making tells us about our collective tolerance of risk. Scientists and Ministers alike have told us that we are going to have to live with COVID-19 indefinitely, but we do not know what that means, if not the acceptance of ongoing risk of some illness or even death. We do not yet understand what tolerable risk looks like.
The road map had four stages, no more, and if the logic of this extension to the last stage is to allow greater vaccination, when that is achieved we must be able to say that the restrictions will be lifted, so that businesses and individuals can, at long last, start to plan with certainty. Anything else will move us from risk management to risk aversion, and risk aversion has consequences broader than the management of the pandemic. Appetite for risk, for example, is a crucial ingredient of innovation and invention—ironically, the things that have delivered the vaccines and the progress we have made against COVID-19 so far. I therefore think we can and should be more definitive about restrictions ending on the 19th July.