A The third blockade for England was inevitable. The pressure on the NHS is mounting as it deals with new infections Of a variant Of the coronavirus that scientists estimate is 50-70% more transmissible. New infections continue to exceed 50,000 each day and daily deaths number in the hundreds. A few weeks ago, many were optimistic that vaccines could return England to normal in the spring. Instead, it appears that we are entering a dangerous new chapter in this pandemic.
It’s easy to get frustrated by the government’s response to this pandemic and wonder why it hasn’t acted sooner. Ministers squandered the opportunity to suppress the virus in the summer when cases were low, opting instead to open up quickly and recklessly after the first national shutdown. The government subsidized people to eat in restaurants and bars, and encouraged vacations abroad through “travel corridors” without any tests or quarantine restrictions for when travelers returned. It was always likely that, if left unchecked, the virus that causes Covid-19 would mutate. The high prevalence created more opportunities for a variant to emerge that now appears to be spreading at a worrying rate.
Where does this leave the UK? Among scientists, optimism about several approved vaccines is tempered by serious concerns about the new variant and what the next few weeks hold. Sage experts note that even with restrictions in place, it will be challenging to stop the diffusion Of this new variant for the next few weeks.
Several fringe scientists have argued that this creates a stronger case for the government to allow the virus to spread through younger, healthier members Of the population. Aside from the opportunities this would create for more mutations to emerge, new data from Manaus, Brazil, shows how catastrophic an uncontrolled epidemic would be. It is estimated that 76% Of people have been exposed to Covid-19 and the epidemic still continues. Applying the Manaus age-specific infection death rates, an attack rate Of 76% would mean 350,000 deaths in the UK and 1.58 million deaths in the US Manaus has a particularly young population, so the death rate is likely to be lower there than it would be in the older demographics Of Western Europe and North America.
The substantial morbidity rate associated with Covid-19 also underscores the risks Of exposing a large percentage Of the population to a virus that is not yet fully understood. Even a plan that allows the virus to spread through the population would require restrictions, because the high rate Of hospitalization that results from Covid infections is dangerous for everyone. If hospitals are full, patients Of all kinds, whether they suffer a heart attack or a car accident injury, cannot receive the necessary treatment. And without spare beds, Covid-19 patients cannot access the ICU care they need to stay alive.
The opposite answer to this is what has been called a maximum suppression or “Covid zero” model. But at this stage, with the Office for National Statistics estimating that England is about 100,000 infections a day, and the new variant that puts pressure on the NHS and the test and trace system, following this strategy no longer seems feasible. The immediate priority should be to survive the next few months without the NHS collapsing and planning a robust response to eliminate Covid in the spring and summer.
Vaccinating as many people as soon as possible will be key to this. The UK has decided to vaccinate more people with one dose rather than fewer people with two. This is an ethical and political judgment rather than a scientific one; waiting for follow-up doses to be given carries enormous costs.
But vaccinating everyone will take time, which is why a national shutdown was necessary. Schools will remain closed until mid-February, except for the most vulnerable children and those Of essential workers. This will reduce community transmission and allow scientists to gather new evidence on the variant.
As always, massive testing and supported isolation are critical to controlling the virus. Both during the lock down and after these new restrictions are lifted, we should quickly test people to identify who they are carriers and ensure that those who need to isolate themselves have the resources, both financial and practical, to spend 10 days alone. That isolation is an act Of goodwill is something the government has repeatedly overlooked during this pandemic, and those who are isolating should be compensated for doing so.
The government has spent many months and billions Of pounds on its test and trace strategy. It is therefore surprising that, despite these efforts, their approach to visitors from abroad remains so lax. Preventing the importation Of Covid-19 cases and variants requires strong evidence and quarantine procedures at our borders. However, people can enter the UK without a negative Covid test result, and the images Of overcrowded airports, in contrast to the carefully planned approach Of countries like South Korea, do little to instill confidence in safety. Of this approach.
Finally, and most importantly, we must follow these new restrictions, continue to stay away from each other and avoid crowded spaces and public transportation, wear face covers, and do everything possible to avoid getting infected and transmitting the virus. We must deprive it Of any opportunity to survive and infect others. In the spring, the longer days and mass vaccinations will give us another chance to eliminate Covid and prepare for the coming winter. The health and economy Of the UK depend on it.
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism