DDirectors of Public Health across the UK have been thinking deeply about how our communities can live with Covid-19 in the coming months. Although people have shown a remarkable commitment to taking care of one another over the past year, we cannot afford to endure an endless cycle of lockdowns forever. The social, physical, mental and economic costs are simply too high. But we cannot accept high levels of Covid-19 either. Increased transmission results in an increased risk of new variants emerging and leads to serious illness and death.
So as the government prepares to issue its next “roadmap” to ease restrictions, what should this look like? There are four principles that should guide the government’s approach to lifting the blockade.
Our first collective goal should be to reduce transmission to the lowest possible level, and keep it low. To do this, we will need to continue with interventions such as social distancing and remote work. There will not be a quick transition to normality. Some restrictions are likely still needed in the coming months, but these should be dynamic and flexible, responding to different risks as they arise.
Restrictions should only be lifted gradually and cautiously and only when transmission levels are deemed low enough to do so. People have become used to washing their hands regularly, covering their faces, and maintaining social distance from others. As lockdown restrictions are eased, keeping these behaviors in place will help protect ourselves and others against Covid-19.
Second, it will be crucial that we continue to monitor the transmission and quickly identify any new variants. Public Health England deserves enormous credit for their work in providing and developing an early warning system capable of quickly identifying variations and increases in transmission rates. In addition, the Covid-19 Genomics UK consortium has played a vital role in sequencing and identifying new variants of the virus. As we learned over the past year, hesitation leads to hospitalization and death. When restrictions are lifted, we will have to be prepared to act quickly, both locally and nationally, to stay ahead of the virus.
The third important aspect of this roadmap should be a highly effective test, trace, isolation and support system. As cases decline and people start mixing again, keeping the virus in check will depend on the effectiveness of this system. Financial and practical support must be available for those asked to isolate themselves, and the NHS test and trace system must be localized, with resources relayed from Whitehall to regional and local health authorities.
Finally, although the vaccination program has been a success story, it is vital that we support as many people as possible to receive the vaccine. Councils and communities must work together to ensure that those least likely to accept a vaccine offer are involved and supported, either through targeted and culturally aware communication campaigns or by recruiting community representatives to encourage acceptance. . Local community leaders, businesses, religious groups, libraries, schools, sports clubs, and the local media will be central to these efforts.
Of course, the success of all these measures will depend on a contract with the public. We not only need a plan, but a campaign to build trust. There are no magic bullets to solve this pandemic, and our focus must be on designing and funding the tools we have to make them work to maximum effect.
A full recovery from Covid-19 will not be possible unless we address the underlying structural inequalities that help the infection persist. We owe it to the diverse and disadvantaged communities who have paid the highest price for the virus to chart a recovery that addresses our nation’s health inequalities. This will mean improving and investing in the social determinants of health, such as housing, air quality, education, income and food. All of these underlying factors overwhelmingly shape how long each of us lives in good health.
It seems likely that we will live with Covid-19 for some time. But with these measures in place, we must be optimistic that we can do so safely, as we move into brighter days.
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism