Rremember the days when you looked at graphs and statistics of covid infections and deaths and wondered if the end of the pandemic was near, if it was safe to visit parents, or if another tranche of restrictions was coming? Thank goodness someone is still keeping track of these numbers, namely the World Health Organization, whose latest update brings the welcome news that the weekly global death toll from Covid has fallen by 9%. However, the overall picture is complex: mortality is rising in the Middle East, but falling sharply in Africa and falling more slowly in Europe and the Americas.
So we are still in a pandemic. But if you’re not in a hot spot, chances are you want to move on, get back to some sort of normalcy, while trying not to worry about all those climate crisis symptoms or the prospect of skyrocketing winter fuel bills. For most of us (perhaps not the estimated 2 million or so in the UK living with prolonged Covid) there are other priorities at the moment.
So, to suggest that Covid is still a pressing issue is unlikely to go against the grain. But we’re (for now) past the point of divisive mask and lockdown arguments. Rather, this is the stage of the pandemic in which to take stock, learn lessons — and perhaps begin to try to process the grief and trauma of the past two and a half years.
Covid, like Brexit, has been conspicuous by its absence as a topic in Conservative leadership campaigns, and partly for the same reasons: both are debilitating disasters, and neither reflects well on those in power. There is a sense that the Conservatives see the pandemic as ‘done’ in much the same way that Brexit is ‘done’: it’s in the past, it’s okay, let’s move on.
So ministers and former ministers insist – regardless of what the scientific experts say – that we are out of the pandemic and that the virus is now endemic, like flu. Peaks in infection rates in early January and late March were the highest on record, but politicians hardly got a mention (the Partygate crisis was more relevant). Don’t worry, the message was: vaccines (remember that awesome spread, by the way!) would take care of that, despite the fact that one in four deaths from Covid in the UK occurred after they became available.
The rapid dismantling of some of the UK’s Covid surveillance infrastructure earlier this year raised even more alarm. In March, for example, the govt has announced that it is ending funding for the Zoe app’s Covid-tracking study and the React study, which estimates the level of Covid infection across England. And while the free lateral flow tests could not be distributed indefinitely, they may have been withdrawn too early (in fact, in the midst of the second largest infection peak). There has been no careful consideration of how to ensure that people on low incomes can get tested for Covid, so it is likely that the poorest people will refuse to be tested before visiting elderly or vulnerable friends and relatives.
It is because countries are rolling back their testing and surveillance capabilities that the WHO is warning that its latest numbers may not be as reliable as previous ones. Now we have to do just the opposite. “We need surveillance to step up its game within countries and [in] cooperation between countries,” says Ewan Birney, director of the European Bioinformatics Institute near Cambridge.
The current political habit of shying away from anything inconvenient means we are still not seriously dealing with the long-term complications of Covid. It’s not about personal “freedoms” — the constant refrain in Matt Hancock’s misinformation-laced February article — it’s about being prepared for the future. Ventilation should become a priority for building codes in hospitals, schools and public places. “Simple air exchange is effective in dramatically reducing the infection,” Birney says. By improving ventilation, he says, we won’t just reduce the transmission of Sars-CoV-2; we will also reduce most other airborne viruses.
The ongoing public inquiry into Covid could in principle create an opportunity for such lessons to be learned. But there is a good chance it will become as much a political football as the Sue Gray report. That the death rate in the UK was comparable to that of several other major European countries, such as France, Spain and Italy, does not make them a good enough result; Public health experts were alarmed by how badly all these wealthy countries were doing. (Per capita results would look even worse if high vaccine hesitancy in Eastern European countries had not led to a late surge in deaths there.)
There are signs of worse to come. Liz Truss said she would have voted to drop the House of Commons inquiry into whether Johnson misled parliament about parties breaking the rules if she could; so much for responsibility. And she also said she would not authorize a shutdown for any future pandemic. It may just be posturing, but such a stance shows an appalling ignorance of the future threats we face. Anyone like the Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS) pandemic, unadjusted, with a death rate of around 35%?
There is another big question about 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 accommodating.
The myopic conspiracy of silence regarding Covid bodes poorly for our ability to deal with future pandemics. It also harms our ability to overcome the tragedy of the current pandemic, which has claimed 200,000 lives in this country and will leave disability behind as a result of prolonged Covid. Marking an injury will probably come in handy at some point. Unlike politicians, we cannot afford to move on, which means we refuse to look back.