IT is almost exactly a year since Zhong Nanshan, a Chinese respiratory expert, confirmed that the new coronavirus identified in Wuhan, which had at that stage killed three people, was capable of human-to-human transmission.

The world has since been altered so profoundly that it’s an effort to recognise how much scientific knowledge, public attitudes and government policy have been upended. Had anyone suggested then that within a month of the first identified death in Europe (in mid-February) that countries would lock down their entire economies, as they did in the middle of March, it would have seemed fanciful.

It has been a year of tremendous cost; in human life, in wider health and well-being, economic security, education and a slew of other areas. Policy has often not been nimble enough to keep pace with growing understanding, introduced too slowly – or too hastily – subject to confused messaging, rescinded aims or sudden reversals.

Not all of that is the fault of governments, though few governments in the developed world, with the notable exception of Australasia, can be said to have done well. In late March, for example, the World Health Organisation and others were not only still arguing that closing borders and wearing masks were ineffective measures, but actively advising against them. If that now looks like an error, it came from public health bodies rather than politicians.

But the scientific community has also produced the greatest achievement of this period, developing, assessing and producing vaccines in a fraction of the normal timescale. For all the hardships and human costs, frontline workers in the NHS, care homes, schools, retail, delivery, logistics and other services, as well as the resilience and forbearance of the general public, brought us through to this point.

Until now, it has been understandable that there were huge limitations on what governments and policy experts could predict, recommend and implement. Some, like kick-starting the hospitality sector over the summer, were well-intentioned but probably mistaken. Some, like the relaxation announced for Christmas from which there was then a partial retreat, were simply bungled. Some, like constant changes to the tier system, or indecision over school openings, were a recipe for confusion.

Others, like the emergence of the rapidlytransmitted variant of the virus, were what were once, in a different context, called “unknown unknowns”, and would always have required rapid footwork and altered plans. There may, by definition, be more of those.

So no one should expect a guarantee of future easing of restrictions, let alone a detailed one. Governments all over the world have no option but to be guided by the numbers. Those include the success of the vaccine, vigilance on transmission, and close monitoring of the capacities of health systems. Any plans are still likely to require amendment, sometimes at short notice. And it is worth accepting that sometimes, the best time to make decisions will always be at the last possible moment, just as at others early interventions will produce the best results.

But if there can be no fixed promises or timetable, there can now – particularly with the impressive speed of the vaccine roll-out thus far – be a provisional road-map. For genuine recovery, that needs to be clearly articulated, even if it comes with many caveats and no assurances. For firms or individuals to make any plans at all, they will require guidance on, say, what hospitalisation numbers, or percentage of vaccinations might herald changes to education, to retail, travel, sport or entertainment.

A modified, socially distanced version of the status quo ante will not be enough. We will not recover from the greatest economic hit in centuries with that alone. We need innovative policies for jobs, for growth, for welfare protection. Build back better is a glib line. It must be an imperative for action, with a decisive vision, engagement with business and other nations, a clear set of practical measures and support. And though we understand it will depend on factors government can’t readily control, it must urgently provide clarity on the general route forward it intends to take.