Unlocking conundrum has no easy answers - but a zero Covid world is a pipedream: Bill Carmichael

Here’s a statement you won’t read very often – I am not sure about things.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson and Chief Medical Officer Professor Chris Whitty during a media briefing in Downing Street, London, on coronavirus. Picture: Daniel Leal-Olivas/PA Wire
Prime Minister Boris Johnson and Chief Medical Officer Professor Chris Whitty during a media briefing in Downing Street, London, on coronavirus. Picture: Daniel Leal-Olivas/PA Wire

Take for example this week when I watched television footage of the Prime Minister’s announcement lifting most of the Covid-19 restrictions.

Like, I am sure, many others, I asked myself the simple question – is this the right thing to do?

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The truth is I don’t know.

I haven’t a clue and I suspect that there are many people, including scientists and politicians, who are in the same boat.

As has been the case since this unprecedented pandemic first hit the country in the spring of last year, we are trying to make decisions without being in full possession of the facts, and as a result guesswork and luck play a far bigger part in our response than we would ideally like.

If we could be absolutely certain that, thanks to the vaccination programme, we have broken the link between infections of the disease and people dying, then of course, getting back to normal would be the right thing to do.

But we don’t have anything like that level of certainty.

All we can say is that infections are rising rapidly, and hospital admissions could reach 1,000 a day before the end of the summer.

But so far, thanks to most of the most vulnerable over-50 group being double jabbed, this has not translated into the high death rate we saw earlier on in the pandemic.

We can also be reasonably sure that a third wave of the disease will gather pace as the restrictions end, but the calculation is that it is better that this happens in the summer months, rather than in the winter when our hospitals will be far busier, and it will mainly infect younger people who are far less likely to get seriously ill or die.

So in the absence of certainty, what we are left with is a calculated risk.

As Professor Neil Ferguson of Imperial College London put it, lifting the restrictions is a gamble, but one worth taking.

But if it is certainty you are after you only have to switch on the radio or TV, or hold your nose and take a trip down the sewer of social media.

Here you will find no end of self-appointed experts who have spent all of ten minutes boning up on immunology and virology.

And they will tell you with absolute certainty either that the restrictions should have been lifted months ago, or conversely that they should not be lifted at all until Covid is entirely eradicated and every last citizen double vaccinated.

As the Irish poet WB Yeats put it: “The best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity.”

What the extremists on either side of this debate fail to acknowledge is that we are trying to find a balance between protecting people from the disease

and keeping the economy going, and whatever route we choose there will be a cost in terms of human lives.

Yes, Covid is a killer, but so is poverty and unemployment caused by the economic restrictions.

The impact on jobs, young people’s education and on mental and physical health is increasingly damaging.

Locking down forever is not an option.

So, despite my uncertainty I am going to put my neck out and say that a cautious ending of the restrictions, while keeping a careful eye on hospitalisation and death rates, is the right thing to do.

One reason is that we can’t wait until the disease is entirely eradicated.

The notion of “Zero Covid” is little more than a pipedream.

Scientists have been trying to find a cure for the common cold for decades without success, so the idea of getting rid of Covid in a few short months is unlikely.

Instead I suspect we will have to learn to live with the disease, and what I hope turns out to be low levels of infection, hospitalisations and

deaths.

If this sounds callous, just remember that for many years we have put up with “seasonal flu” which kills many thousands every winter.

Perhaps the best we can hope for is that Covid becomes another risk factor to our health, like seasonal flu, and we will become accustomed to getting our regular booster jabs to protect ourselves every autumn.

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