There’s been a lot of argument in the past few days about the corona pandemic i.e. acute, to becoming endemic i.e. something which continues to work at a low but containable level in our society. This is not a subject for political debate. It looks unlikely that we can totally eradicate Covid-19. The question is how do we get to the point of it being endemic rather than pandemic without tens of thousands of lives being lost in the process?
Let’s be clear the endemic state is the best that we are likely to achieve. There are two very similar Sars viruses to covid, that of the common cold and influenzas. We’ve been trying to get rid of those for years with little success. Some things though are entirely different than when I was a boy. Polio was rife and hundreds of people lived miserable lives in ‘iron lungs’ which basically breathed for them. Mumps, measles, and rubella, now the subject of the MMR jab have stopped thousands of children dying or having conditions and scarring which affected them for the rest of their lives.
The common cold we live with because it is a relatively minor virus. Yes, it is nasty and uncomfortable but is rarely a killer. We control it with medicines off the shelf. Influenza is more difficult largely because of the way that it can change and move from mild to dangerous and in reverse. We had a flu pandemic about 15 years ago and we all queued up for a jab. I well remember joining a queue at Old Swan. When the flu arrived though it was a mild version. Many who were weren’t vaccinated got it and thought it was just a winter cold but as the saying goes, “better safe than sorry”.
Today we safeguard against flu by giving an annual jab to the old and vulnerable. We get one every year because the jab is slightly different than the one that we had last year as scientists monitor the flu genome and alter the vaccine. We haven’t yet cured Aids, but we have developed drugs which give people with Aids a normal life span.
So, how do we ensure that we move to an endemic phase of covid where we know that we can live with it?
Well, the easiest solution, which seems to be the opinion of some Tories in early 2020 was to let it rip. Take no precautions and let large numbers of people die and then the majority would develop what is called herd immunity where our bodies learn to live with the virus by developing a natural immunity providing we haven’t died in the meantime.
Thank goodness that this view did not prevail. Already more than 150,000 people in this country have died directly from the virus with more dying of other causes but partly because their body had been weakened by Covid. On top of that people have died because they couldn’t get their operations for other conditions and at least 1.5 million have suffered or are still suffering long-covid, some of them for more than a year.
No, that was not the answer then and should not be the answer now. The idea that we could have allowed more than 500,000 to die and even more people to suffer life changing conditions is absolutely unthinkable by decent people.
So, what we must do is manage the changing from pandemic to endemic carefully. Perhaps Omicron has helped us do just that. Clearly a huge number of people have had the omicron version of the virus with possibly twice as many people as the official figures show. The hospitalisation and death rates have been proportionately lower because so many of us have had three jabs and because it is a milder version of the virus.
But it is still a killer which is why we cannot let it just rip though the community. The latest figure I have seen for deaths is 300 in a day and without a doubt our beloved NHS is coping with difficulty with large numbers of very sick people. The fact is, however, that a very significant number of people have died who had received no vaccination at all. They didn’t deserve to die but for most of them their death, or even their avoidance of illness, was eminently possible.
It is likely that we are approaching the peak of omicron with this week being the height of the problem. Infection rates will start to decline thereafter with hospitalization two weeks behind that and then deaths being a further two weeks behind. That will move us back to the halcyon (!) pre omicron days before the start of December with all three being at a controllable level.
But we are in a better place. Many people will have been vaccinated because of this latest round and many more will have caught the virus in a mild or full form and survived but will have built up a level of immunity.
My way forward would be threefold:
- Only start to remove restrictions slowly. We don’t want another ‘Freedom Day’ which is what ultimately to the restrictions of winter 2020 and lengthened not reduced the pandemic period.
- Keep up the public health campaign to encourage people to get vaccinated, test and continue to socially distance etc even if they don’t legally need to.
- Get the developing world vaccinated. Omicron came because the virus was allowed to breed in those too poor to be vaccinated. The way to protect us in the UK from future deadly variations is to vaccinate everyone.
“Steady as we go” should be the maxim of or and indeed every government. I fear that what we will hear will be an orgy of victory claiming and ‘it’s all over’ self-justification. That will only, once again, lead to disastrous consequences for our Country.