A government expert has fuelled hopes of an imminent return to everyday life by hinting that the UK’s Covid-19 mass testing programme might be abandoned in the new year.
Professor Lucy Chappell, chief scientific adviser to the Department of Health, told the Commons Science and Technology Committee on Tuesday that ministers were considering scrapping the widespread use of lateral flow tests for asymptomatic people “beyond January, beyond spring”.
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Hopes are growing of a return to normality as infection figures begin to drop. Government modelling has also suggested that both Covid cases and related deaths are set to fall dramatically in the coming weeks.
Official data shows that after peaking at more than 52,000 new daily cases on 21 October, the tally fell to as low as around 34,000 over the weekend. And The Telegraph reported that a forecast by the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine (LSHTM) predicted that cases would continue to fall steeply in the winter months, even without the government's so-called Plan B.
However, a Downing Street spokesperson said on Tuesday that it was “too early” to draw conclusions from the latest figures.
Speaking to BBC Radio 4’s Today programme this morning, the government’s chief scientific adviser Sir Patrick Vallance said the UK was still in a “very uncertain phase” of the pandemic.
“There is considerable uncertainty into which direction this goes,” he said. Vallance explained that it was “wrong to think that the build-up of immunity is an all or nothing – it’s a sort of protective barrier that will reduce the spread of the virus so we need to monitor this carefully over the next weeks and months”.
Crisis ‘far from over’
World Health Organization director-general Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus has also warned that the Covid-19 pandemic is “far from over”.
Speaking at the World Health Summit in Berlin on Monday, Tedros “criticised the lack of equity in vaccines distribution”, reported euronews. The WHO chief noted that some countries were already dishing out a third jab while populations in less developed nations had not even had a first dose, despite hopes that the fair distribution of vaccines between poor and rich countries could pave the way for a return to normality.
The Guardian has cast doubt on such hopes for life in the UK, warning that the government was “in denial” over a looming crisis. In a leader comment, the paper said Conservative ministers must “live in a parallel universe to NHS professionals” because they are “drifting into another round of Covid displaying none of the urgency or seriousness it demands”.
Julian Birkinshaw, a professor of strategy and entrepreneurship at the London Business School, has argued that “many things won’t get back to normal, even after Covid is largely behind us”.
In an article on the LBS website, Birkinshaw wrote that this prediction is based on the concept of “hysteresis”, which was first developed in physics and then adopted by economists.
“It basically means that the impact of a change on a system cannot be reversed simply by taking away the force you applied in the first place,” he wrote. “The system doesn’t just bounce back after a shock – there is an enduring, sometimes even permanent change.”
Birkinshaw said that structural economic adjustments and changes in consumer behaviour, workplace behaviour, and government rules and regulations were just four of the areas that might have been permanently altered by the pandemic.
Coming to terms with ‘Covid forever’
Experts in the US are maintaining a cautious tone too. Dr Anthony Fauci, chief medical advisor to the president, warned earlier this month that “it is going to be very difficult – at least in the foreseeable future and maybe ever – to truly eliminate this highly transmissible virus”.
In an article published yesterday in The New York Times, investigative journalist Katherine Eban wrote that we have to “come to terms with Covid forever” because our lives might “not return to a pre-pandemic normal”.
She said that many scientists “envision flu-like seasonal surges of Covid-19, accompanied in some years by heavy death tolls”, which could “lead us to mask up seasonally, get an annual vaccine as we head into the winter months and make ongoing improvements to ventilation in critical public spaces like transportation hubs”.
Ultimately, Eban added, “we have to face facts: Covid may well be with us forever”.
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