If you’re reading this in the UK, odds are that by now you’ve had coronavirus: 7 in 10 of us have watched the dreaded red line appear. You may have been stuck in bed with it twice or even three times by now; by April 2022, England alone had recorded almost 900,000 reinfections. When the public asked to “return to normal”, I’m not sure a regular hacking cough was what they had in mind.
It is an odd situation. Last week, Covid infections were reported to have soared by 43%, while hospitalisation from the virus rose by 23%. An estimated 1.7 million people in the UK tested positive over those seven days. Two million of us now have long Covid, with about two in five of those – or 826,000 people – having symptoms for at least a year.
And yet, listen to Boris Johnson or his ministers and you’d be forgiven for thinking none of this was really happening. As a new coronavirus wave threatens to hit the country once again, the government appears more interested in scrapping human rights than protecting human lives. Welcome to sick man Britain: where the public are left to catch coronavirus repeatedly, and ministers pretend everything is fine.
Back in February, Johnson said the government had created a plan to start “living with Covid”, but what it really did was form a plan to catch and spread Covid. After all coronavirus prevention measures were dropped on 1 April – from the legal obligation to isolate if you had Covid, to the end of most free testing – the public were left wide open to mass infection. Even hospitals were told by ministers to ditch mask mandates, though some worried trusts have defied the rules and kept them. That all precautions were pulled back just when most people’s vaccine immunity was beginning to fade, and the virus was evolving to be more transmissible, gives a hint at how little logic ministers applied.
One of the biggest problems facing Britain’s attempts to quell the virus is that this government doesn’t really want to. There is hope – the number of people dying from Covid has reduced since its peak – but excessive focus on this has long hidden the fact that loss of life has never been the only thing that matters: how many people are infected with the virus matters too. A strategy that lets the virus rip through the population increases the risk we all face, be it from surges, new dangerous variants, or in developing long Covid. Fundamentally, it means accepting a reality where it is deemed normal for many of us to be (possibly severely) sick, from a virus whose long-term effects – and the effects of repeated reinfection – we still know little about.
The likely longterm impact on the economy and society is similarly grim. It means more pressure on an NHS that’s already creaking under the weight of backlogs. It means sickness absences across key sectors and frontline workers, from nurses to teachers. Children missing more school. Not to mention soaring social security bills from long Covid patients who are too sick to work (the government’s solution to this appears to be turning them down for disability benefits).
There will be few greater casualties though than the 3.7 million clinically extremely vulnerable people, especially the 500,000 who are immunocompromised and can’t get much or any benefit from a booster jab. Trying to avoid the virus in a country that has forgone all safety measures means risking your life when you pop to the shops. Ministers who are content for repeated coronavirus infection to just become part of British life are content for isolation to be part of clinically vulnerable people’s.
There is an alternative. Campaigners are calling on the government to reinstate free lateral flow tests, the isolation requirement for those with a positive test, and financial help such as sick pay – few rational voices could disagree. Fixing our dire sick pay rates is only becoming more pressing in a cost of living crisis that means low-paid and insecure workers are likely to feel obliged to go into work when they have Covid. We must also start a long-term investment in ventilation and air filtration that can help make schools and workplaces safer, as well as making lifesaving antiviral treatment more accessible to clinically vulnerable patients.
It’s also time for a renewed public health campaign for boosters; as of this month, around a fifth of people aged 75 and over in England are yet to have a fourth Covid jab. And fiddly though it is, wearing masks in busy and enclosed spaces again is the right thing to do; just under half of Britons (48%) reported wearing a face covering when outside their home last month, down from about 95% during the January Omicron wave.
After two long, tough years, no one wants to still be dealing with coronavirus. I don’t want to be writing this column. But unless we wish to sign up to getting repeatedly sick for the foreseeable future, and to the risk of long-term disability from long Covid, we are going to have to bring back low-effort protective measures to curb it. A recent public health campaign in Ireland, which encourages people to think of clinically vulnerable people in their daily interactions, shows how easy it is to do things differently.
The government may want to stop thinking about coronavirus, but in doing so, it is ensuring that all of us have to think about it for a long time to come. That’s something we will surely all get sick of fast.
• Frances Ryan is a Guardian columnist