If Covid was now “no worse than a cold”, as some would have us believe, there would not be more than 10,000 people in hospital in the UK with the disease. Nor would there be 2 million people living with long Covid. Infection rates have surged, rising more than 30% in the week ending 24 June to 2.3 million people, thanks to the highly transmissible Omicron subvariants BA.4 and BA.5. The number of admissions to hospital with Covid has climbed steeply too.
Though vaccinations and immunity through previous infections may not prevent infection and transmission, they are still protecting most people from severe illness. Treatment has also improved. No one is suggesting that the high levels of sickness merit a return to lockdown, or anything approaching it. But other mitigation measures, at minimal social and economic cost, are both possible and demanded. The impact of such high levels of transmission on the clinically extremely vulnerable (especially the half a million people who are immunocompromised), the prevalence of long Covid and the impact on the National Health Service – already buckling under existing strains – all make action a matter of urgency.
Many hospital chiefs have rightly reintroduced mandatory masking. The government should extend this to public transport while infection rates are so high, and should strongly advise using a well-fitting, good-quality mask in other crowded situations, such as supermarkets. It should communicate the overall current risks clearly, and encourage people to address these through reducing social activity, meeting friends outdoors or ensuring good ventilation at gatherings. It should also reintroduce free and easily available tests for the public, helping them to keep themselves and others safe. The short- and long-term burden placed on the health service, on businesses affected by staff shortages, and other forms of disruption are far more costly than the extra spending incurred. And ministers should reverse the scrapping of special Covid leave for NHS staff, due to be withdrawn on Friday, as the British Medical Association has urged.
The government needs to vigorously promote and facilitate vaccine uptake for those who have yet to receive doses: almost a fifth of over-75s have yet to take up the spring booster dose. It should also prioritise work on this autumn’s provisional booster plan, considering extending cover beyond the over-65s and those most at risk – such as frontline health and social care workers – to others. The current wave is not an early arrival of the one that is predicted to come this autumn; experts are still predicting another surge then. Much will depend on the emergence of new variants and the development of new and better vaccines, which might do more to tackle transmission, for instance. And taking vaccines seriously must not stop at our borders: equity in delivery worldwide is not only a matter of fairness, but could help to reduce the risk posed by future variants.
With the mood already bleak thanks to the war in Ukraine, the cost of living crisis and the incompetence and deceit of this government, few want to dwell on the resurgence of the illness that has blighted our lives for more than two years now. But pretending that Covid is no longer a problem only increases the threat it poses. Even if we try to ignore Covid, it is not going to ignore us – as the tens of thousands being infected daily can testify.