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When can we really expect coronavirus to be over?

With Omicron sweeping across England and daily cases reaching record highs, many are wondering when coronavirus will really be over. Olivia Petter ask the experts

Monday 20 December 2021 14:42
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The first case of coronavirus transmitted in the UK was reported on 31 January 2020. Since then, there have since been more than 140,000 deaths across the nation.

In March 2020 Prime Minister Boris Johnson put the nation in lockdown, a move which was eventually reversed that summer with people being urged to return to offices to work and to Eat Out To Help Out at restaurants and pubs.

But by winter, Covid-19 case numbers were rising again, resulting in further lockdowns. These lockdown restrictions began to lift in England in March of this year and have, so far, remained lifted.

However, that could be about to change. Earlier this week, scientists called for a 10-day circuit break lockdown to quell the rapid spread of Omicron, the new variant that has been spreading quickly across the UK in the past few weeks.

On Friday 17 December, a record number of daily coronavirus cases were reported across the UK for the third day running, with 93,045 new infections confirmed.

The spike in cases has led Dr Jenny Harries, the head of the UK Health Security Agency, to dub Omicron the “biggest threat of Covid pandemic so far”.

While little is known about this strain of Covid-19, in terms of transmissibility and severity, the World Health Organisation (WHO) states that preliminary evidence suggests there may be an increased risk of reinfection with Omicron. In other words, people who have previously had Covid-19 could become re-infected more easily with Omicron.

England’s chief medical officer, Professor Chris Whitty, has said the Omicron variant could rise “incredibly fast but that its peak should subside quickly due to the government’s booster programme.

The booster jab, launched earlier this year to offer further protection to fully vaccinated people, has also been found to create “significant protection” against Omicron, a new Israeli study confirmed.

Additionally, many people have compared Omicron symptoms to those related to the common cold.

Nonetheless, the WHO has been keen to state that the risks of the new variant should not be underestimated. “We have to be really careful that there isn’t a narrative out there that it’s just a mild disease,” said Maria Van Kerkhove, the WHO’s Covid-19 technical lead.

So, 21 months after Covid-19 first reached UK shores and multiple variants later, we’re beginning to wonder whether the pandemic will ever end. Surely there must be an expiration date?

To find out more, we’ve asked experts how much longer can we really expect the coronavirus outbreak to continue in the UK and what the proposed exit strategies are in order to return to normal life.

When will coronavirus be over?

Dr Michael Head, senior research fellow in global health at the University of Southampton said that there is never a strict definition for declaring the end of a pandemic.

“We tend to look towards statements from the WHO, and the end of previous pandemics have been defined by a satisfactory decline in transmission across countries,” he explained

“With swine flu in 2009, with clear seasons and evolution onto the next year’s strains of influenza, this was more straightforward. For this novel coronavirus, there will be no clear ending.”

In light of this, Head suggests referring not to an “end” per se but to a shift onto a new global and national phase where Covid-19 is clearly under control. “However, this is some way off yet,” he added.

“For example, the UK could in theory declare itself to be comfortable with any self-declared position, but would still be vulnerable to imported infections and the international presence of new variants of concern.

“In order to end the pandemic, we need to think globally, rather than nationally. Vaccine inequity is one key issue that needs to be resolved.”

Will we need to continue having booster jabs?

“We should expect to have further booster jabs in the future,” said Head. “This third dose generates an excellent and very protective immune response in most people, but the longevity of that protection is a current unknown.”

Aside from vaccination, Head added that non-pharmaceutical interventions (NPIs) will play a crucial role in the short-term when it comes to the battle against Covid-19.

“These include face masks, and requirements to prove vaccination when travelling,” he noted. “I can also foresee a useful longer-term role for the continued use of face masks, for example donning a mask if we have a minor respiratory infection when popping to the shops. This can help to protect those around us.”

Robert Dingwall, professor of social sciences at Nottingham Trent University, said, however, said that regular boosters may not be the best route forward. “I have heard respected immunologists say privately that it may be better in the long-term to be exposed to infection as an infant and develop a lasting immune response, which is topped up by periodic mild reinfections,” he explained.

“This is what happens with most other respiratory viruses. We might need to boost immunity in older people with generally weaker immune systems, as we do with flu, but we should think very hard before embarking on any further mass vaccination campaigns.”

Will we need more lockdowns?

“I find it hard to see that more lockdowns would be politically tenable, even if there were to be a change of government,” said Dingwall.

“We do need a step change in investment in health and social care so that the NHS is more resilient in winter but we cannot fund that without a functioning economy which is not ripped apart every few months.”

Head agreed that further lockdowns are unlikely. “They are clearly undesirable, but will remain a vital ‘intervention of last resort’,” he added.

Are there any other solutions?

“I suspect that hybrid working will carry on until the costs in terms of innovation, informal learning and collaboration become clearer,” said Dingwall.

“Particularly risk-averse people may derive some individual psychological benefit from face coverings and other forms of distancing but I think the evidence of the last few months is that large-scale anxiety gradually subsides and there is little appetite for permanent changes to the way we organise our lives.”

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