Concern has been raised at the recent rise of Coronavirus cases. However, why are we surprised that it is happening? It is worth remembering two important things. First of all, that the original purpose of social distancing and lockdown measures was not in the belief that this would end the pandemic but rather with the aim of slowing it down, flattening the curve in order to protect the NHS from a surge of the cases. The aim was to increase capacity during that time. Secondly, exactly because of that, when lockdown ended, we had a disease that was still very much present within the population and was known for its ability to spread quickly.
On that basis, it was always going to be the case that once people started meeting and having contact with each other, then the virus would spread further again. Indeed, the test at this stage is not whether or not the virus spreads but whether or not, it does so in a way that leads to hospitalisations and deaths. Furthermore, the question is whether the NHS is now able to cope with any increased demand.
If I can be a little bit provocative, may I suggest a few implications from this. The first and obvious is that the only way to end the pandemic is by creating a form of herd immunity either because enough people within the population have built up resistance to it (if that is possible) or because a vaccine has successful been developed. There are encouraging noises around the development of vaccines, but the decision to pause the Oxford option today should remind us that it may be some time until we have one that is safe and ready. In the meantime we cannot lock the population down or even keep the current measures for in place without it having further harm on the nation’s health and well-being.
So far, I’ve probably not been that controversial, although I think there are some who thought we could just extend lock-down a little longer until it all went away. However, here comes the challenge. What would have happened if we had lifted lockdown a lot sooner? What if we had not imposed some of the additional restrictive measures but allowed people to get on with their lives? Isn’t it possible that we still would have seen the increase of cases but it would have happened in the summer at exactly the point when we were meant to be flattening the curve ready for? It would have meant that the NHS was ready with its spare capacity, its extra ventilators and its Nightingale hospitals. It may well also have been that due to people being more outdoors and the weather being warmer that the virus would not have been so deadly.
I am not saying this to be gung-ho and I want to say again that I take this virus very seriously. It is essential that we all fully comply with whatever measures are agreed. I am not an expert in viral infection – you should have noticed that by now. However, I keep coming back to the point that if we are going to defeat this thing then we are going to need to ask the big questions, think outside of the box and not just simply go through the motions of conventional wisdom. We need to be ready to look at different ways of approaching things.
So what is the way forward. I am concerned that we will be driven into another lockdown. I don’t think that is the right option but it may become as inevitable as the first. My preference would be that we focus on making sure there is effective mass testing, that our care homes and other contexts where people are vulnerable are protected and secure and that travel between particular blackspots (here or abroad) is controlled. It may also be worth a look at creating quarantining centres. This might be a good use for holiday park capacity during the winter to provide places where people can rest and recuperate without risk of infecting others. I’m sure there are other things that could be considered.
If we truly believe that COVID-19 is deadly then we need a truly radical approach and change of thinking in our response to it.