Why it’s time to think differently about Covid


For more than a year, personal freedoms have been curtailed to keep Covid at bay.

That looks likely to change, with ministers proposing to lift many of the remaining restrictions in England on 19 July. The details, set out on Monday, have sparked intense debate.

Prof Neil Ferguson, from Imperial College London, whose modelling led to the first lockdown, has said it is a gamble, but one worth taking.

What is unarguable is that the nature of the pandemic in the UK has changed – and with it so should many of our assumptions.

Covid no longer the deadly virus it was

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The rollout of the vaccination programme has altered everything, reducing both the individual risk and the wider one to the health system.

Back in January, about one in 10 infections could be expected to translate into a hospital admission 10 days later. Now that figure appears to be somewhere between one in 40 and one in 50.

What is more, those ending up in hospital seem to be less sick, and need less intensive treatment.

The risk of death, as a result, has reduced even further. In January about one in 60 cases resulted in someone dying. Today it’s fewer than one in 1,000.

But this does not mean England – and the rest of the UK for that matter – is not heading for a significant third wave.

As the charts above show, infection rates are rising. If they rise enough, that has the potential to cause a significant number of hospitalisations, possibly 1,000 a day before summer is out.

Many may wonder how this can happen given how effective the vaccines are.

Individually, those who have had two doses are at a very tiny risk of getting seriously ill, but with infection rates high it means many people are taking that tiny risk at the same time. Add to that those who are unvaccinated or for whom the vaccines do not work as well and you can get a lot of admissions to hospital.

But serious illness happens all the time. In the depths of winter there can be 1,000 admissions a day for respiratory infections.

Flu alone killed more than 20,000 people in England in the winter of 2017-18. There was no talk of the need to introduce restrictions or curtail freedoms then.

“That is the context we need to start seeing Covid in,” says Prof Robert Dingwall, a sociologist at Nottingham Trent University.

There are other arguments for why it should be now.

“Covid will never go away,” says Prof Paul Hunter, from the University of East Anglia. “It’s inevitable that we’re going to catch it repeatedly for the rest of our lives, whether we have had the vaccine or not.

“The issues becomes not whether it is safe to lift all restrictions, but when would it be safest to do so.”

Waiting any longer could make the situation worse, he believes, extending the exit wave into the autumn when schools are back and the flu season is getting under way.

It was a view echoed by England’s chief medical officer Prof Chris Whitty, who said it had his personal backing when the government unveiled its plans on Monday.