Fifth wave: Does anyone remember Covid? You should – it’s back with a vengeance

Anyone remember Covid? That’s not supposed to be a facetious question. It has taken the lives of approaching 200,000 people in the UK alone (some 196,977 with Covid-19 on the death certificate, at the time of writing). It has destroyed families. It has caused untold harm and grief. It has changed lives forever. Some 400,000 people are living with “long Covid”, many unable to work or lead the active lives they once did.

But now? It is as if it had never happened. Yet there is another wave of Covid coming through, directly after the wave of complacency that has ripped through the nation since restrictions were lifted – too soon and too abruptly – in February. Infections and hospitalizations are on the up, albeit from a low base and at much lower levels of fatality.

The possibility that the “platty joobs” parties and Glastonbury will have spread the disease seems perfectly plausible. We do know it grows exponentially, and by the time it’s alarmed the authorities, it’s too late to stop it. That may not be far away.

There are, too, these new variants of concern: BA.4 and BA.5. It’s still not clear how dangerous they are relative to their predecessors, but it’s possible that, even if they are not, another variant of concern will come along that is both more infectious and more vicious than we’ve known before. Such mutations are random (even the flu goes up and down in virulence).

That’s why it was so reckless of the government to dismantle so much of the Covid monitoring and surveillance infrastructure, not to mention routine testing in schools, in the propaganda effort to make everyone forget about Covid and live our lives normally. We can’t live our lives just as we used to in the age of Covid. We may have to learn this lesson again, at great cost.

The abolition of the modest public health precautions earlier in the year (which were far from “lockdown”) was another big call that Boris Johnson got wrong. What should have happened is that the controls should have been extended, not so much to deal with a declining Covid case load, but to keep Covid out of hospitals to help the NHS clear the backlog of non-Covid cases. We didn’t do that, and hence the continuing pressure on the NHS, added to by post-Brexit loss of staff.

It has succeeded, then, this effort to make us “live with Covid”. Now, even Covid scaredy cats like myself feel uneasy about wearing a facemask at the supermarket or turning down social events. We may not have really hit herd immunity with our vaccines, but we’ve not lost our herd instincts. Even so, the recent upsurge in case numbers should make us all exercise some caution about invitations to indoor parties or indeed work events.

It’s understandable that we’re reluctant to accept that Covid is still out there, still making people sick, the clinically vulnerable are still in danger. It’s not nice. We’d prefer to think it’s gone away, or that it’s like seasonal flu. We’ve drunk the Kool-Aid that Boris Johnson started dishing out earlier in the year, all the stuff about “we must learn to live with Covid”, or “put the pandemic behind us”, living normally, that sort of thing.

Even minimal precautions aren’t taken these days. Apart from in hospitals and surgeries, mask wearing is now vanishingly rare. The peer group pressure that led us to keep our distance and put a face covering on in crowded spaces has disappeared, gone into reverse. The row about partygate showed just how much some people’s perceptions have changed, from covid being a dimly understood, potentially deadly threat with no treatment or vaccine (which it was then) to judging the law breaking in Downing Street as something trivial, as people wrongly judge it to be now.

Let us look ahead, then. We’ve passed the summer solstice, I’m sorry to say, and in due course, the weather will drive us indoors again (if not already). The current upswing in cases and hospitalizations will intensify. New variants will emerge. Some may be particularly nasty.

So how are we doing with taking precautions about the coming autumn wave – for now is the time to get things ready? Where is the drive for a fresh round of booster jabs, and indeed the new multivalent jabs that will help protect against as yet undiscovered coronavirus variants? Where is the public information campaign reminding us not to take unnecessary risks if we are members of more vulnerable groups? Do we have the treatments and the PPE stockpiled? Are there enough ambulances? Are there enough skilled and semi-skilled NHS staff?

I doubt it, judging by the stories coming out of the NHS right now and the published vaccination rates – only seven in 10 of us are fully vaccinated (ie with the booster), and about 7 per cent of the population remains totally unvaccinated.

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Such a lack of defense means that even a moderate wave of mild infections might be too much for our struggling health service to deal with. As ever, the nation feels underprepared.

“Living with Covid” should never have meant ignoring it and going back to doing things exactly as before. Living with Covid responsibly means adjusting patterns of work and pleasure to avoid spreading the virus still in our midst. It means maximizing herd immunity protection via responsible vaccination and a constant effort to push the coverage figures higher. It means making the NHS ready for another public health emergency. It means fixing Test and Trace before the crisis, and restoring monitoring and surveillance (like the polio testing in the sewage works that provided invaluable intelligence).

Only with constant vigilance can we truly live with Covid and keep it as far as possible out of our lives. We can’t just pretend it doesn’t exist even if Boris Johnson wants to.

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George Holan

George Holan is chief editor at Plainsmen Post and has articles published in many notable publications in the last decade.

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