DESPITE the losses and hardships of the past year, we should be grateful to be where we now are. The creation, approval, production and roll-out of effective vaccines – an achievement for which scientists, medical specialists and the frequently maligned drug companies and policy makers deserve great credit – offers a path towards recovery.

Without that, countries where the disease is established would have few options besides an endless cycle of lockdowns, with any relaxation being temporary and accompanied by a rise in deaths. We are, however, not yet out of the woods.

We hope that route will be provided by guidance to be given this week, and welcome it. We recognise that any advice must be provisional, that it may be affected by variants of the virus, especially if they prove more transmissible, by case numbers, by the ability of clinical services to cope, and that progress may be slow, or at least gradual.

But we also know that the economy needs a robust, inventive programme for recovery, business needs a framework within which to plan, and that individuals need hope and reassurance about their well-being, non-Covid healthcare, and opportunities to renew family and social lives.

Very few clinicians or epidemiologists, to judge by a paper published last week in the journal Nature, believe that “Zero Covid” – completely eliminating the virus – will be possible in the foreseeable future. But if vaccines offer the prospect of reduced transmission, many fewer cases of serious illness and death, and thus some more nearly normal life, they do so with attendant decisions and consequences.

Covid might become more manageable, perhaps even to the point where tracking, tracing and isolation become realistic strategies (as they generally cease to be from the moment the virus obtains a firm grip on a population). But that would require a very slow emergence from current restrictions, and entail an “acceptable” rate of infections and deaths.

Herald View

Herald View

To say so is not to be heartless: each case is a human tragedy. It is to understand that, in balancing risks and costs to health, the economy and ordinary human rights and freedoms, policy makers make judgments. They have always done so, on areas from traffic to flu; indeed, all aspects of health and safety. The NHS, expert advisors, and organisations such as NICE in England and Wales and the Scottish Medicines Consortium inform those decisions, but they are ultimately politicians’ – or, rather, the whole of society’s – to make.

The justification for lockdowns was to reduce transmission and cases to a level with which hospitals and medical services could cope. If vaccinations – now, across all the home nations, running at roughly the same extraordinarily impressive rate – perform that role, it strengthens the case for easing restrictions.

But, just as there is with the annual toll from flu, responsible for between 20,000 to 60,000 deaths each year, there are costs. Unless and until Zero Covid is a realistic outcome, the harm done by trying to prevent any deaths must be balanced against the undoubted damage done by restrictions.

The most helpful thing that governments can do is be transparent with the public about the data by which they will be guided, and the targets that they anticipate meeting at each stage of relaxing restrictions. Bouncing into another lockdown would be catastrophic, but failing to respond to the strides made by vaccination and the reduction in cases would also be unacceptable.

Infections in Scotland are the lowest since early December; the R number across the UK is, for now, below 1 and falling rapidly; but the threats remain. An estimated one per cent of the UK population is infected, hospital cases are still high, and overall numbers comparable with those in the first lockdown.

Governments, even if cautious, now need to be clear on their direction, the data that will guide progress towards it, and its timetable, the levels of risk to accept, and how that will be managed without lurching backwards. And the public needs to share that clarity.