We hear a lot these days about “living with Covid”, as if we had any choice in the matter. It’s certainly here to stay, “endemic” rather than “pandemic”, they tell us. Any remote chance that the ever-evolving coronavirus might have been eliminated in Britain has disappeared. The government seems to think that “living with Covid” means pretending it isn’t there, or, if it is there, pretending it doesn’t really hurt anyone, or no more so than the flu (which of course does kill people).
It’s not an electoral plus for the Conservatives, the persistence of Covid, and it’s always going to be a reminder of Britain’s relatively high death toll and inadequate national response. So, as usual, they’re gaslighting the nation about a problem by telling us it doesn’t exist.
It’s wrong. “Living with Covid” means we should minimise its impact, the same as any other disease, not blithely forget all about it. No one says we should “live with” cancer, cataracts or heart disease, for example, and vast resources are rightly ploughed into research, health education and treatments. The same should be the case with Covid.
It is not a “mild” disease, even though the current prevalent variant, Omicron, is mercifully less severe and has a lower fatality rate than the Delta variant. It is possible that a future variant may be both more infectious and more deadly than Omicron, or Delta and Alpha for that matter. All the more reason why we should still be slowing its spread and preventing infections. Omicron is still killing people. It is still putting extra strain on the NHS, which needs to get on with clearing the non-Covid backlog (and thus costing more lives, indirectly).
It seems mad that the government is abandoning even minimal public health precautions in such circumstances. If we are sick with Covid, we should stay off work and avoid infecting other people, just the same as if we had any other infectious illness. Yet the self-isolation guidance is being swept away. If reports are to be believed, the financial support for doing the right thing and staying at home is to be abolished.
There also seems no harm in anyone taking the necessary precaution of using a lateral flow test to check if they have asymptomatic Covid before visiting, say, a friend in hospital or an elderly, clinically vulnerable relative in a care home. Yet it now appears the government is to introduce charges for lateral flow tests and PCR tests. This from ministers who claim that they are doing everything they can to limit household costs where they have control over them in this cost of living crisis – they even froze the BBC licence fee.
But families with children or with relatives in care will face another unavoidable bill imposed on them by the government. It adds financial insult to the injury of sickness from Covid. Except that, in too many cases, the bill will be avoided. Some simply won’t be able to afford to buy the test kits and in due course, infections will rise, there will be more lives blighted by long Covid, and more loved ones taken before their time. It would be interesting to see the impact assessment on that. It seems very much like a false economy, given the damage a Covid outbreak can do in a business, school or hospital.
Having gagged on a Covid test swab going down my gullet too many times, and cursing myself because I’ve forgotten my mask, I’m no fan of any of the Covid-induced inconveniences that have intruded on our lives. I don’t feel able to go to the football or the cinema, and I avoid public transport. It’s horrible, having that restricted feeling and missing out.
Yet the logic for taking precautions and minimising risk for one’s own good and the benefit of those around us remains strong. People seem to have forgotten that Omicron is very much more contagious than previous variants, and a new sub-variant, named BA.2, is on the way. It can still hurt you and leave you with life-changing disability.
We also seem to have become dangerously complacent about our fairly modest rate of full vaccination. For all the boasting about the fastest vaccine roll-out rate in the world, in Britain the crucial booster jab programme has been a disappointment. According to the NHS Covid dashboard, only 65.9 per cent of the population aged 12 and over, equating to just 56.5 per cent of the total population, has had three jabs – all below optimal levels for herd immunity.
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Maybe ministers have quietly decided to revert to the natural herd immunity strategy for children, though the recent announcement on vaccinating the young is a more hopeful sign. Overall, even the vaccination programme – supposedly our main line of defence – seems to have lost momentum.
And when was the last time Chris Whitty, Patrick Vallance and the other clinical and scientific authorities were seen out in public? When Boris Johnson casually announced the ending of self-isolation during Prime Minister’s Questions, as a nakedly political ploy, members of SAGE confessed that they’d not discussed, let alone approved, such a step. Whatever happened to following the science?
Partygate wasn’t about cake, champagne or even hypocrisy and the equal application of the law. It was the outward manifestation of a ruling clique who don’t think Covid is or ever was that big a deal, and that they didn’t really believe that there was much we could or should do about it. Like divorce or a hangover, it’s just a fact of life. You may recall Johnson reportedly voicing his admiration for Mayor Larry Vaughn in Jaws, the man who refused to close the beach because of some silly shark scare. Or when Johnson said it was all OK because the Covid victims were all over 80 anyhow. Or when he declared he’d rather see the “bodies piled high” than impose another lockdown.
In such circumstances, where Johnson’s reckless insouciance and official complacency has shaded into neglect of the public health of the nation, all the rest of us can do is keep testing and keep wearing face coverings. Good luck living with Covid, everyone.