For the first time in more than two years those of us who live in England are free to live our lives without the fear of infringing Covid rules. As of April 1st the government has lifted the last remaining legal restrictions. There is now a new strategy: ‘living with Covid’. We can get on a tube train or a bus without fishing in our pockets for that rather moth-eaten mask that was probably way past its sell-by date anyway. Many will say ‘about time too’. Others are warning that the government is taking a big risk. Covid has not gone away and may yet come back to bite us. Whose side are you on? Is this a cause for celebration (possibly in a very crowded pub) or trepidation?
In practical terms what it means is that free lateral flow tests for people in England have now come to an end. And the more sophisticated (and expensive) PCR tests will be restricted too – even for people who are showing Covid symptoms. Tests will be free only to specialist staff – such as people who work for the NHS or in care homes and for hospital patients and the vulnerable. There’s also an end to legal requirements to self-isolate and an end to financial support for those on low incomes needing to self-isolate. The message from Boris Johnson was clear enough. The time to ‘compel’ people was over. Now people will be asked to ‘exercise personal responsibility’ to look after each other.
Many senior figures in the medical or scientific world are, perhaps unsurprisingly, dubious. Not least because the latest data from the Office for National Statistics shows that Coronavirus infection levels are higher than they have ever been. In England one person in 13 is thought to have had Covid in the most recent week for which we have statistics. The number of infections across the UK rose by about 650,000 compared with the week before. These figures are the highest recorded by the survey since the ONS began looking at Covid two years ago. It seems that infection levels among children and young adults have plateaued but have continued to rise among those aged 25 years and over. The number of people in hospital with Covid is, as I write, around 16,000.
So, on the face of it, the timing of Boris Johnson’s decision to dispense with Covid restrictions seems unfortunate to say the least – and that concern has been reflected in comments made by some of the most senior medical and scientific figures in the land. Dame Dame Jenny Harries, the UK’s chief medical adviser, said the public should ‘moderate’ their behaviour and start wearing masks again’ and we should all be ‘very sensible' because some hospitals were under significant pressure and the pandemic could remain 'unpredictable' for the next two years. As for her own behaviour she had this to say: 'I will always put on a face covering when I walk into a shop or if I'm on a train, in those sorts of areas where we know we can help prevent transmission.'
Professor Sir Chris Whitty, England's chief medical officer, delivered much the same message. He said the waves of Covid 'are still occurring' and 'The wave we have in England at the moment is putting a lot of pressure on the NHS still. And it's actually still going up. And in some parts of the country, for example, the South West, it is causing a lot of problems to ambulance services, to A&Es, to acute medicine.' Professor Sir Jonathan Van Tam, who’s just retired as the deputy chief medical officer, said nobody should think the pandemic is over. He told the same conference: 'Case rates here in the UK are really, really high' and he said it was important for the over-75s to come forward for their spring boosters.
Sir Patrick Vallance, the chief scientific adviser, told a different conference run by the scientific body The Royal Society that a coronavirus variant 'that escapes immunity' could take the world by surprise again. He added: 'It's very obvious to everyone in this meeting that there will be a future pandemic... what it is going to be, we have no idea.'
Christina Pagel, the director of the Clinical Operational Research Unit at University College London and a regular contributor to The Guardian has written: ‘ We’re living in two realities: one in which people have returned to living life as if Covid is over, and the other in which we are approaching record levels of infection... The pandemic has changed, but the idea that it is over is false.’ She accuses the government of believing the ‘three big myths of the Omicron age’.
The first myth, she says, is that coronavirus is now endemic, and just another disease we have to live with. She concedes that we have to live with it, but says the word “endemic” is commonly used in epidemiology to describe a disease that does not spread out of control in the absence of public health measures. In some sense, it means a predictable disease. That, she says, is wrong because neither of the two big Omicron waves was predicted and ‘they are rapidly changing our assessment of the evolution of coronavirus and the implications for protection from vaccination or previous infection.’
Another myth, she says, is that viruses always evolve to become milder. In fact, she says, what drives evolution is transmission: variants that infect more people will thrive. And the third is the ‘pernicious’ myth that we have somehow “finished” our vaccination programme and there is no point in waiting to return to normal. She says: ‘The UK does have a high level of vaccination, particularly in older, more vulnerable populations, and the initial two dose rollout in adults is largely complete. Unfortunately, immunity from vaccines wanes over a matter of months – mostly against infection, but also against severe disease and death.’
So that’s the essence of the scientists’ case against relaxing Covid restrictions or, in tabloid language, ‘setting us free’. The argument most often deployed is a simple one: if not now... when?
Many who argue against continuing the restrictions or even contemplating the possibility of another lockdown say there is precious little evidence that they were ever as effective as the scientists claimed. They point to predictions that were massively inaccurate and modelling that was little more than guesswork. It all led, they say, to massive damage to the British economy for which we shall be paying a very steep bill for many years to come. Plus the crippling of the NHS. Many thousands will have died because they were unable to get the clinical tests they so desperately needed or the operations that might have saved their lives. Countless children have suffered because they missed out on so much education. Countless numbers of old people died unable even to hold the hand of those they loved.
Another argument in favour of ‘freedom’ is that our attitudes as a nation have changed. We are now far more responsible in our behaviour than we were in the pre-Covid era. There’s some evidence to support that. Many people continue to wear face masks and stay away from their doctor’s surgery. Many more are continuing to work from home. A recent survey showed nearly half of those polled believe the government is actually relaxing the restrictions too quickly.
So where do you stand? How will your behaviour change now that ‘freedom’ is replacing restrictions? How much of your pre-Covid life will you resume? Are you still wearing face masks on public transport and are you relaxed about getting squashed in a crowd on a rush-hour tube or bus? Have you abandoned Zoom for face-to-face meetings? Do you continue working at home some of the time? Do you test yourself if you feel a bit sniffly and will you self-isolate even if you’re not
required to? Are you still seriously scared of Covid or do you think of it as just something we’ll have to live with?
Do let us know.