We are in the midst of yet another Covid wave. Prevalence is high and rising. The latest ONS (Office for National Statistics) infection survey suggests that over 5.3 per cent of people across the UK are currently infected – more than one in every 19 people. This means that even if half of all people with Covid are isolating, you only need 30 people in a room before it becomes more likely than not that you are sharing air with someone who has it. That could be in a classroom, for example.
Hospitals are feeling the effects. Admissions are averaging almost 2,000 per day, and were increasing at roughly 30 per cent week on week, although thankfully this has now slowed down and looks to be flattening off.
Nevertheless, Covid hospital admission levels are still high, exerting pressure on the NHS. Some of these infections are hospital-acquired, in part a result of significant government pressure to stop people from wearing masks in hospitals. While many trusts have thankfully reneged on their initial decision to remove the requirement to wear a mask, hospital-acquired infections are still having knock-on consequences for the rest of the health service. Lack of NHS capacity has contributed to the crisis in the ambulance service. The inability to admit patients to accident and emergency departments has led to some dying in queueing ambulances, and others dying at home while waiting for treatment.
So the government should be taking measures to reduce transmission, except no such measures are being taken or even discussed. The irony is that it wouldn’t take that much to reduce transmission and to keep it at lower levels between waves. And there are ways we could be doing this that are not hugely disruptive to people’s lives.
Firstly, bringing back free testing so that people can afford to detect when they are infectious and act appropriately would be a great start. An effective, locally driven contact-tracing service would let people know when they had been in contact with infectious people and allow them to take precautionary measures.
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Improving sick pay would mean people could afford to isolate when they are positive, and not go into work, potentially infecting their colleagues. Mask-wearing in indoor public spaces – particularly at times when Covid levels are higher – and good public-health messaging are other underused tools in our arsenal.
Improved ventilation and air filtration, making indoor air safer, would help hugely. These protections work not just against Covid, but also against other airborne pathogens. Concerns about the feasibility of their implementation have led to inaction.
We are living with a novel, infectious, and potentially debilitating pathogen. Almost 2 million people in the UK are reporting symptoms lasting longer than four weeks, 800,000 for longer than a year, and almost 400,000 for longer than two years. For 400,000 long Covid sufferers, the condition is substantially affecting their daily lives.
By trying to sweep Covid under the rug – ignoring its existence and putting no mitigations in place to protect the population – we’re trying to go back to a normal that doesn’t exist any more. We need to start doing something differently, otherwise we can expect to come across the problems we’ve encountered with this last variant-driven wave again, and again, and again.