Covid-19 test Covid-19 test, Photo: Jernej Furman, Flickr / cropped from original / licensed under CC BY 2.0, linked at bottom of article

Based on what we’re hearing from the government, you would think Covid doesn’t exist anymore, argues Terina Hine

Are we experiencing another Covid wave? The fifth? As the media and politicians are focussed on Ukraine, and war takes the place of Covid horrors in the public’s mind, the virus appears to have snuck back in under the radar.

Covid has never been more prevalent or easier to catch – there are over 350,000 new cases daily – affecting schools, offices and productivity. In the seven days to 19 March Covid infections soared to 4.26 million – up by almost 30% on the previous week. This is just under the highest number of cases yet recorded in the pandemic. And it will rise further.

These are just the published figures, the real number is much higher – possibly 3-5 times higher – because of course fewer people are testing and fewer still reporting their results – and as of 1 April this disparity will increase further as people will have to pay between £3 and £5 to test.

And it is not just case numbers that are rising – both deaths and hospitalisations are up as well. By now we are all familiar with the lag between the different data sets so again these figures will be an underestimate, but in the last week Covid deaths rose by 21% (to 998), and new admissions to hospitals reached more than 14,600.

Make no mistake this represents another huge challenge for the beleaguered NHS.

There are already a record six million people waiting for NHS treatment. With Covid infections reaching record levels this will only get worse. It may not be Covid that kills you, but the cancer or heart attack that goes untreated might. When staff are off sick, when surgery gets cancelled, when screening is delayed all healthcare is compromised. This is happening again and again.

Education is also being compromised. According to the department for education around 200,000 children are currently off school because of Covid. Parents are being reminded to keep their children at home when they test positive to prevent further spread of the disease – but of course are themselves unable to claim sick pay to watch over their children – and all legal requirements to isolate have gone.

The government’s response to interrupted education is for the kids to catch up through a longer school week and higher targets – but a simpler solution would surely be to control community transmission and continue free testing. In just a matter of days schools will no longer have access to free tests.

There is a vacuum of information from the government – particularly about when to isolate given the lack of available testing. The CBI have raised concerns about increased absences as people stay off work unsure of whether they have Covid or a cold. The Tories appear to have swallowed their own propaganda and believe the pandemic is over when it clearly is not.

And once again they talk of herd immunity. Apparently, that ship still lists in the dock regardless of all the prevailing evidence. But don’t be fooled, arguments for herd immunity are simply another way of pretending the disease doesn’t exist, or is not dangerous. Well try telling that to the families and friends of the 160,000 who have lost their lives so far, and the thousands more suffering from the debilitating effects of long covid.

This is not to deny that we have made huge strides against this disease, and vaccines are literally a life saver for most, but it needs to be acknowledged that vaccines alone are not the panacea we were led to believe.

Yes, vaccines rapidly induce high levels of protection, but protection wanes within only a few months, and within a few months of each subsequent booster. Plus, less than half of immunocompromised population in England have received a booster and a third of those over 75 had theirs over five months ago. And now we hear that one of the antibody treatments is ineffective against the BA.2 Omicron variant – the dominant variant in the UK.

Since the government officially called an end to all pandemic mitigations Google mobility data shows that activity levels are almost back to pre-pandemic levels, with even the most vulnerable -  the formerly shielding – beginning to drop their guard. We have more mixing and fewer masks, voluntary quarantine and soon no free tests. Is it really surprising we are seeing a surge in cases?

The government believes it is the responsibility of individuals to keep themselves and others safe, yet prevent them from doing so by removing free tests. But this is not right, infectious disease management should not and cannot be the responsibility of individuals. Infectious diseases require a community response, and in the case of Covid this means investment and changes to our infrastructure – changes which individuals simply cannot make.

As many public health experts have been saying for almost as long as the pandemic has existed – we need a public health strategy like the Victorians had for cholera.

To live with Covid, we need clean, filtered air, improved sick pay, an end to cramped and overcrowded housing, and regulations around mask wearing where there is high prevalence of the virus and minimum ventilation. Yes we have good treatment, and yes we are undoubtedly in a much better position than we were two years ago, but the pandemic is far from over. Allowing each variant to rampage through the population uninhibited will simply lead to further mutations, which in turn could prove resistant to not only antibody treatments, but to the vaccine itself.

Saying all this does not mean we cant live with Covid – rather it is suggesting how we can.

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