TOAs the days get shorter and colder, and the country prepares to enter fall and then winter, two key questions that I am repeatedly asked are: what will the next six months be like? And will there be another national winter shutdown?
Scientists are wrestling with our crystal balls as we try to predict a future determined by complex interlocking factors. These include possible new variants; a resurgence of seasonal illnesses such as influenza and RSV (a common respiratory virus that generally causes mild cold-like symptoms), putting pressure on the NHS; a vaccination program that has been shown to be effective but still requires greater acceptance; and public fatigue.
Last September, we heard a more euphoric Boris Johnson declaring normalcy for Christmas. In hindsight, we know the consequences of this laissez-faire approach as a deadly second wave led to a brutal winter shutdown and families separated during the holiday season. In stark contrast, Johnson’s tone yesterday was more serious and somber, and the plan he outlined is cautious and on-the-spot.
Vaccines are relied on to do the heavy lifting in damping transmission, stopping serious disease and keeping the pressure off the NHS. A concern among scientists is declining immunity, which needs to be addressed through a booster program for priority groups such as health and social care workers, those over 50 and those with underlying health problems.
Another concern is adolescents, which has been addressed with the green light of a mass vaccination program for 12-15 year olds, similar to those in the US, Canada, Germany, France, Singapore and Israel. This will keep the pressure off busy pediatric units and prevent children from having prolonged Covid-19 symptoms. In an effort to increase acceptance among younger groups, as well as keep businesses such as nightclubs open, Vaccine certification remains a standby policy in England should it be needed, while Scotland is already moving forward with these plans.
The second pillar we rely on is community testing to detect positive cases, so that those infected can isolate themselves for 10 days and not transmit the infection to others. Home testing has been a success, with lateral flow tests finding nearly a quarter of positive casesand prevent infectious people from going to schools, workplaces, and social events. Fortunately, this will continue through the winter period.
In support of these pillars, the government is advising people how to avoid respiratory infections in general: go out as much as possible, open windows and ventilate indoor spaces, wear masks inside stores and on public transport, and avoid the crowded and crowded places.
The plan then looks at how to better support the NHS during the winter, including long-term Covid services and additional financial investment. Few details are given about what the cash will be used for. Even before Covid-19, the NHS was stretched over the winter, and a real investment is needed not just in infrastructure, such as beds and equipment, but also in hiring the right staff and ensuring they are treated properly. The recent backlash against GPs runs the risk of upsetting those who are the lifeblood of the NHS and increasing the growing number of mental health victims and the burnout of medical staff. There is no point in having a ventilator if there are no trained intensive care personnel to operate it.
And while it has a strong focus on national policies, the plan also highlights the importance of helping to vaccinate the world, focusing on Covax, a multilateral mechanism where richer countries donate doses to poorer ones. However, a more effective measure would be to move from the charitable model of vaccine donation to one in which regional manufacturing centers are established so that low-income countries can purchase their own supplies, with the help of the World Bank.
Like all countries in the Northern Hemisphere, the UK government will lead us through increasingly stormy waters in the coming months. While a lockdown could become unavoidable if health services appear on the brink of collapse, there is a real chance of avoiding harsh winter restrictions.
To avoid a lockdown, we need the various components of the system – vaccination, behavior changes, and widespread testing – to work together. Covid-19 is still here and we are still in the middle of a pandemic. Hopefully this fall brings a change from a divided society arguing about the severity of Covid-19, to one in which we work collectively to manage this problem, slow the spread of the disease, and save lives and livelihoods.
We all want the same thing: for the pandemic to end and to return to normal life. Let’s focus together on how we got there.
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism