Professor BRENDAN WREN: Time for the Great Covid Reset

Time for the Great Covid Reset: Britain is unlocking at last. But it’s not just the rules that must change for good… it’s our whole national mindset, writes Professor BRENDAN WREN

There I was savouring the buzzing atmosphere as I enjoyed a pint in the pub with friends, when it became clear that I needed to correct a misapprehension.

All my drinking companions were double vaccinated and seemed to think this made them more or less bulletproof when it came to Covid.

I explained to them this is not the case. While the vaccine is 90 per cent effective, that still means that if 50 million people receive it, five million of them could still fall victim to the virus — although they are certainly far less likely to suffer its most serious effects.

It wasn’t my intention to dent my friends’ confidence in the vaccine. Indeed, quite the opposite.

I believe we need a dramatic change of stance when it comes to Britain’s approach to the pandemic — one that could best be summarised thus: stop fighting Covid, start living with it.

And the best way of achieving that is to understand the facts. Regular readers of this newspaper will know it is a view I’ve held for some time, even while acknowledging that our world-beating vaccine programme is not a panacea. And I am happy to say I have now been backed by some very eminent colleagues.

Baffled

At a parliamentary committee hearing this week, Professor Sir Andrew Pollard, who led the Oxford vaccine team, declared that while we cannot entirely stop transmission of the Covid virus (and may never achieve the much-desired herd immunity because the Delta variant can still infect the vaccinated), we need to alter our mindset to accommodate life with this pernicious virus.

That means an end to mass testing and the recitation of endless doom-mongering Covid infection figures that, as infectious diseases expert Professor Paul Hunter put it, are largely meaningless if they do not translate into rising hospitalisations and deaths.

To which I can only say ‘Hear Hear!’ Followed swiftly by ‘About time’.

There I was savouring the buzzing atmosphere as I enjoyed a pint in the pub with friends, when it became clear that I needed to correct a misapprehension. All my drinking companions were double vaccinated and seemed to think this made them more or less bulletproof when it came to Covid. Pictured: Diners in Soho, west London

Of course, I welcome the final easing of restrictions next Monday when self-isolation rules will be ditched (and replaced by advice to get a PCR test and daily lateral flow tests for NHS staff), but there is more the Government needs to do.

I have long been baffled by the way our Government has seemed to lack the courage of its vaccine-fuelled convictions despite the astonishing success of the roll-out. We were told repeatedly — and correctly in my view — that vaccination was the key to ending the stranglehold of Covid on our lives and the partially paralysed economy.

Yet here we are, with 75 per cent of the adult population now fully vaccinated, and the ‘third wave’ far less dramatic than forecast even in the wake of loosened restrictions — but a wartime mentality still pervades.

Which leads me to ask: what on earth were ministers hoping to achieve? Certainly not ‘Zero Covid’, a shorthand term to describe crushing the virus so comprehensively that it is eradicated.

This was the policy deployed by both the Australian and New Zealand governments which, at various points, claimed to have achieved a Zero Covid status.

Realistic

That is no longer true: both countries are gripped by spiralling case numbers of the Delta variant in spite of ferocious national and local lockdowns and closed borders.

Nor will it ever be true. We are never going to be able to eliminate Covid, just as we have never been able to eliminate other bacterial and viral diseases whether it be TB or influenza or antibiotic-resistant bacteria which remain embedded within the world population.

But that is not a cause for fear, because we now have a much more realistic sense of how the virus affects us and how the vaccine has transformed our landscape even in the wake of the Delta variant.

This week, the Department of Health announced that 60,000 deaths and 66,900 hospitalisations have been prevented by the vaccination. Those numbers will only increase as more of the population receives the vaccine, including 16 and 17-year-olds.

I have long been baffled by the way our Government has seemed to lack the courage of its vaccine-fuelled convictions despite the astonishing success of the roll-out. Pictured: A woman gets her jab at a Newcastle vaccination centre

This, though, is far from an inviolable ‘ring of protection’. Analysis by Public Health England has shown that when vaccinated people catch the virus, they have a similar viral load to unvaccinated individuals and may be as infectious.

But we have shown conclusively that mass vaccination makes the virus less likely to spread, while those that contract it are less likely to suffer catastrophic consequences.

That is precisely why those daily new Covid infection figures — announced nightly on the BBC and by other broadcasters — are such a nonsense. They tell us what we already know, which is that the virus is amongst us. But that only matters if it is overwhelming us — which it isn’t.

I believe we need a dramatic change of stance when it comes to Britain’s approach to the pandemic — one that could best be summarised thus: stop fighting Covid, start living with it, writes Prof Brendan Wren

Meanwhile, there are other genuinely catastrophic consequences playing out every day.

None of us can yet foresee the true long-term impact of the Government’s handling of this virus, but we have already paid a huge price both economically and psychologically.

Businesses have gone to the wall, thousands have died awaiting hospital treatment delayed by the pandemic and thousands more have missed out on early diagnosis of life-threatening diseases. Others have been overwhelmed by the psychological toll of social isolation and lives put on hold.

In the latter camp, I would place those people I know who are stll so terrified by the spectre of Covid that they refuse to leave their homes.

But you do not have to be a scientist to understand that, even with the Delta variant and the threat of other mutations, the bottom line is that with mass vaccination, Covid is no longer a lethal threat.

Moreover, as global medical understanding of the virus expands, so do our treatments and therapies. We are a long way from where we were in the bleak months of early 2020.

That is not to say we can ever be complacent. No one can predict the evolution of the virus. But the key thing is whether we can manage it —and I believe that the astonishing acceleration of our vaccine technology in the past 18 months means that we can.

In effect, like seasonal variants of the flu, Covid will become a background problem, efficiently dealt with by an ongoing annual vaccine programme and care of the vulnerable.

Confidence

That certainly seems to be a belief in other parts of Europe, where I have watched with interest as France and Germany have granted privileges to people who have been vaccinated, including access to particular restaurants and bars, in an attempt to persuade the vaccine sceptics.

These aren’t mandates as such — although some of the measures come close — and it isn’t something I would want to see here.

Either way, now is indeed the time to end the siege culture of mass testing and quarantining.

No one can predict the evolution of the virus. But the key thing is whether we can manage it —and I believe that the astonishing acceleration of our vaccine technology in the past 18 months means that we can

No one is suggesting that people behave recklessly, but our leaders need to acknowledge publicly that, in the UK at least, the worst is over.

I would go so far as to say that it is the duty of our Government to imbue the public with a sense of renewed confidence, encouraging them to stop living their lives in fear.

Yes, Covid is here to stay. But we are already showing that we can and will live with it.

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