Is this the end of the Covid-era? I wouldn’t bet on it

The government is staking everything its got on a strategy to re-open the country that gambles with the nation’s loose grasp on controlling the virus

Alexis Paton
Wednesday 26 May 2021 14:14 BST
Indian variant could drive third coronavirus wave in UK, says Prof Andrew Hayward

It isn’t over until it’s over, they say. Ain’t that the truth for this pandemic. As our country speeds along its roadmap to recovery, last weekend saw some serious diversions thrown up that should signal to our government and our population that the pandemic is far from over.

Two announcements made over the weekend, one loud and clear, the other quiet and almost missed by the public, hold important messages about how far we are as a nation from the end of the Covid-era.

The first is the news that the two dominant vaccines, Pfizer and AstraZeneca are effective against the variants, providing 88 per cent and 60 per cent effectiveness respectively after two doses towards the “Indian” variant.

While great news that our vaccines can hold their own against known variants of Covid-19, the government still needs to be preaching caution. Because while the effectiveness of the vaccines has been proven in their full dosage, only a small proportion of the country, just 34 per cent in fact, has had that all-important second dose. For those on a single dose and waiting, their protection from the vaccine is halved, hovering at a mere 33 per cent effectiveness. Those who are unable to take up the vaccine at all remain as vulnerable as they have always been.

To put this another way, roughly two-thirds of the country has, at best, a third of the required vaccine protection needed to see a safe return to normality. Not great odds when you consider that for most communicable diseases to no longer be a threat, it is recommended that anywhere from 70-95 per cent of the population needs to be vaccinated. Covid-19 likely falls in the 70-85 per cent range. This means that right now, as a country, and in particular globally, we are far from our destination of a Covid-free society. I’m not a betting woman, but even I know these are odds not worth taking, especially when the payout is measured in lives lost.

And yet these poor odds are just what the government is betting on. In fact, it is staking everything it’s got and gone all-in on a strategy to re-open the country that gambles with the nation’s loose grasp on controlling the virus and a policy of common sense that has previously been proven to be risky and life-threatening. Let us not forget that it has been barely a year since we started to ease off lockdown restrictions in June 2020 with a similar approach to be individually cautious. During that time there was the same flurry of messaging about a return to normal, the same encouragement to resume certain activities. This approach saw two back-to-back waves of infection that led to the lockdown we are currently easing. Unsurprisingly, at least to some, as we head into June 2021, we are seeing similar results.

This brings me to the quiet announcement over the weekend that several areas across the country were discouraged from meeting indoors due to a rise in case numbers. While the country looks forward to a bank holiday spent with family and friends (of up to two households, please and thank you), places like Bolton and Leicester are quietly, almost discretely, being encouraged to roll back the process of opening up. Deja vu of the warning variety, a reminder that the pandemic is far from over, and that ignoring these rises as we have before only leads to worse outcomes down the road.

So my message to the government and the country is that we must take pause at this important moment in time, at this particular point on the roadmap, to decide whether we really can move forward to 21 June. Or would it be more prudent to pause before we carry on the journey towards re-opening and normality? By waiting briefly on the road to recovery now, as a nation, it may be possible to avoid the devastating consequences of local lockdowns on those communities worst affected by the new variants, and provide the opportunity for the country to move forward together to a Covid-free existence.

Dr Alexis Paton is a lecturer in social epidemiology and the sociology of health at Aston University, chair of the Committee on Ethical Issues in Medicine at the Royal College of Physicians, and a trustee of the Institute of Medical Ethics

Join our commenting forum

Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies


Thank you for registering

Please refresh the page or navigate to another page on the site to be automatically logged inPlease refresh your browser to be logged in