Here we go again. It’s the middle of summer and the leading opinion piece in the Guardian today calls for the return of restrictions in response to rising infections and hospitalisations. In a piece introduced with, “a few small changes would make a big difference to millions of vulnerable people”, journalist Frances Ryan writes:
If you’re reading this in the U.K., odds are that by now you’ve had coronavirus: seven in 10 of us have watched the dreaded red line appear. You may have been stuck in bed with it twice or even three times by now; by April 2022, England alone had recorded almost 900,000 reinfections. When the public asked to “return to normal”, I’m not sure a regular hacking cough was what they had in mind.
Almost 900,000 reinfections? How will 1.6% of the population have coped with getting another cold?
It is an odd situation. Last week, Covid infections were reported to have soared by 43%, while hospitalisation from the virus rose by 23%. An estimated 1.7 million people in the U.K. tested positive over those seven days. Two million of us now have long Covid, with about two in five of those – or 826,000 people – having symptoms for at least a year.
What Ryan fails to mention is that Long Covid studies frequently find small to negligible numbers of additional symptoms compared to a control group, meaning the quoted figure is unlikely to be an accurate picture of the real impact of COVID-19.
Back in February, Johnson said the Government had created a plan to start “living with Covid”, but what it really did was form a plan to catch and spread Covid. After all coronavirus prevention measures were dropped on April 1st – from the legal obligation to isolate if you had Covid, to the end of most free testing – the public were left wide open to mass infection. Even hospitals were told by ministers to ditch mask mandates, though some worried trusts have defied the rules and kept them. That all precautions were pulled back just when most people’s vaccine immunity was beginning to fade, and the virus was evolving to be more transmissible, gives a hint at how little logic ministers applied.
Since Ryan accepts that vaccine protection wanes, she evidently intends restrictions, sorry, precautions to continue indefinitely. Indeed, the plummeting of the infection fatality rate makes no difference to her argument, as “excessive focus” has been placed on deaths, she says.
One of the biggest problems facing Britain’s attempts to quell the virus is that this Government doesn’t really want to. There is hope – the number of people dying from Covid has reduced since its peak – but excessive focus on this has long hidden the fact that loss of life has never been the only thing that matters: how many people are infected with the virus matters too. A strategy that lets the virus rip through the population increases the risk we all face, be it from surges, new dangerous variants, or in developing long Covid. Fundamentally, it means accepting a reality where it is deemed normal for many of us to be (possibly severely) sick, from a virus whose long-term effects – and the effects of repeated reinfection – we still know little about.
Once again, the plight of the vulnerable is deployed to justify indefinite restrictions on everyone – a logic which would destroy most freedoms given the opportunity, as we have seen in the last two and a half years.
There will be few greater casualties though than the 3.7 million clinically extremely vulnerable people, especially the 500,000 who are immunocompromised and can’t get much or any benefit from a booster jab. Trying to avoid the virus in a country that has forgone all safety measures means risking your life when you pop to the shops. Ministers who are content for repeated coronavirus infection to just become part of British life are content for isolation to be part of clinically vulnerable people’s.
What does Ryan propose? The reinstatement of free lateral flow tests – as though there isn’t an economic crisis on, and we haven’t spent enough over-testing ourselves for colds; the return of the legal requirement to isolate for those with a positive test – a measure extremely disruptive to education, employment, health care and everything else; and financial help such as sick pay for those isolating – more magical money. Plus more of the vaccines she has acknowledged don’t work for long.
And, inevitably, masks: “Wearing masks in busy and enclosed spaces again is the right thing to do; just under half of Britons (48%) reported wearing a face covering when outside their home last month, down from about 95% during the January Omicron wave.”
From a sceptical point of view, it’s depressing that nearly half of people still say they’re wearing a mask – though since far fewer than half the people I see out and about are actually wearing a mask, this poll probably reveals more about the biases of polls (and what people say to them) than the reality on the ground.
Then Ryan lays it on thick:
Unless we wish to sign up to getting repeatedly sick for the foreseeable future, and to the risk of long-term disability from long Covid, we are going to have to bring back low-effort protective measures to curb it. A recent public health campaign in Ireland, which encourages people to think of clinically vulnerable people in their daily interactions, shows how easy it is to do things differently.
Former Deputy Chief Medical Officer Jonathan Van-Tam recently said the rise in infections was nothing to worry about and that even he had stopped wearing his face mask. But will he think again now, if respectable opinion starts to shift in the direction Frances Ryan and others would like?
Let’s hope this is just an anomalous op-ed and not the start of a trend. After all, if this is what they’re saying in June, what will they be saying in December?