Remember those days of looking at graphs and statistics of Covid infections and deaths and wondering if the end of the pandemic was in sight, or if it was safe to visit the parents, or if another tranche of restrictions was on the way? Thank goodness someone is still keeping track of those figures – namely the World Health Organization, whose latest update brings the welcome news that global weekly Covid deaths have dropped by 9%. All the same, the overall picture is complicated: deaths are rising in the Middle East but plummeting in Africa and declining more slowly in Europe and the Americas.
We’re still in a pandemic, then. But unless you are in a hotspot, the chances are that you’re keen to move on, to return to some sort of normality while trying not to worry about all these symptoms of the climate crisis or the prospect of soaring winter fuel bills. For most of us (not, perhaps, the estimated 2 million or so in the UK living with long Covid) there are other priorities right now.
To suggest, then, that Covid is still very much a live issue is hardly going to court popularity. But we are (for now) past the point of divisive arguments about masks and lockdowns. Rather, this is the stage in the pandemic at which it’s appropriate to take stock, to learn lessons – and maybe to start trying to process the grief and trauma of the past two and a half years.
Covid, like Brexit, is conspicuous by its absence as a topic in the Conservative leadership campaigns, and partly for the same reasons: both are disasters that have exhausted everyone, and neither reflects well on those in power. There’s a sense that the Conservatives regard the pandemic as “done” in much the same way as Brexit is “done”: it’s in the past, it’s all fine, let’s move on.
Thus ministers and ex-ministers insist – regardless of what scientific experts say – that we have exited the pandemic and that the virus is now endemic, like the flu. The peaks in infection rates in early January and late March were the largest ever, but they barely warranted a mention from politicians (the Partygate crisis was more urgent). Don’t worry, was the message: the vaccines (remember that amazing rollout, by the way!) will take care of it, notwithstanding the fact that one in four Covid deaths in the UK occurred after they became available.
The rapid dismantling of some of the UK’s Covid surveillance infrastructure in the early part of this year was arguably even more alarming. In March, for example, the government announced it would stop funding the Zoe app Covid tracking study and the React study which assesses levels of Covid infection across England. And while free lateral flow tests could not be distributed indefinitely, they were arguably withdrawn too soon (indeed, in the midst of the second-largest infection peak). There has been no careful thinking about how to ensure people on low incomes can afford to take Covid tests, so it’s likely to be the poorest people who will forgo a check before visiting elderly or vulnerable friends and relatives.
It is precisely because countries are dropping their testing and surveillance capabilities that the WHO has cautioned that its latest figures may not be as reliable as previous data. Right now, we should be doing precisely the opposite. “We need surveillance to up its game inside countries and [in] collaboration between countries,” says Ewan Birney, director of the European Bioinformatics Institute near Cambridge.
The current political habit of moving on from anything awkward means we are still not dealing seriously with the ongoing complications of Covid. This is not now about personal “freedoms” – the constant refrain in a misinformation-strewn article by Matt Hancock in February – but about future preparedness. Ventilation needs to become a priority for building codes in hospitals, schools and public places. “Simple air exchange is effective in dramatically damping infection,” says Birney. By improving ventilation, he says, we won’t just reduce Sars-CoV-2 transmission; we’ll also reduce the majority of other airborne viruses, too.
The Covid public inquiry now getting under way could in principle create an opportunity to learn lessons such as these. But there is a strong chance it will become as much of a political football as the Sue Gray report. That UK deaths were comparable to those of several other large European countries such as France, Spain and Italy does not make them a reasonably good outcome; public health experts have been dismayed at how poorly all these wealthy nations fared. (The per capita outcomes would look even worse if high vaccine hesitancy in eastern European countries had not created a late surge in deaths there.)
There are signs of worse to come. Liz Truss has indicated that she would vote to stop the Commons investigation into whether Johnson misled parliament over the rule-breaking parties if she could; so much for accountability. And she has also declared that she would not authorise lockdowns for any future pandemic. This may be mere posturing, but such a position reveals a frightening ignorance about the future threats we face. Anyone fancy a lockdown-free pandemic of a virus like that which causes Middle East respiratory syndrome (Mers), with a mortality rate of around 35%?
There is another big question over who will replace Patrick Vallance as the government’s chief scientific adviser when he steps down next April. Johnson inherited Vallance; Truss will have the opportunity to find someone more compliant.
The myopic conspiracy of silence over Covid bodes ill for our capacity to cope with future pandemics. It is also damaging our ability to process the tragedy of the current pandemic, which has claimed 200,000 lives in this country and will leave a legacy of disability as a result of long Covid. A marking of the trauma will surely be needed at some point. Unlike politicians, we can’t afford to let moving on mean refusing to look back.
Philip Ball is a science writer