We were told to fear omicron – but it’s a pussycat compared to what came before

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Most children have either had Covid, been vaccinated or both, so they enjoy superb immunity, but the poor kids will still be sent home for a week and lose yet more learning because Hugo in Year 6 snogged someone on Boxing Day. Or a teacher, almost certainly triple-vaccinated, tests positive and goes off sick even though they’re not at risk of serious illness. In fact, they’re perfectly fine. Meanwhile, more than 110,000 NHS staff – nearly one in 10 – were absent on New Year’s Eve, with almost 50,000 of those said to be sick or self-isolating at home because of Covid.

I hate to ask, but how many of them were actually, you know, ill? The people I know who had omicron over Christmas variously reported a scratchy throat, feeling tired, feeling “fed up because I can’t go out”, feeling “roughly how I feel the day after several pints of Guinness”, or no symptoms whatsoever. Yet each one of them had to self-isolate for seven days.

What happens if it is acceptable not to go to work if you are perfectly fit and healthy, have no signs of any illness but test positive? Economic collapse, obviously – but our public health officials seem to think that’s a small price to pay if it means three people called Mike don’t sneeze in the office.

One and a half million tests per day is a job creation scheme for corona paranoia, and at a time when we are supposedly “learning to live with the virus”. Staff shortages are caused by the constant testing of healthy individuals and overlong quarantines. (In France, any healthworker with suspected Covid who tests negative is straight back into the hospital, no questions asked.) And now here comes the spectre of the Winter of Discontent, shaking his icy shackles and threatening that the children will go untaught, the rubbish will pile high in the streets and even the dead may remain unburied. All because of a mild illness which, if the UK wasn’t testing so obsessively (two or three times as much as our European neighbours), would barely register as a threat.

Happy New Fear! It was as recently as December 17 that Professor Neil Ferguson was contemplating the most “optimistic” scenario of 3,000 deaths a day in January if no further restrictions were imposed. Boris held his nerve (or backbench Tory rebels and the Cabinet held it for him), and no further restrictions were imposed. On Monday, the total number of Covid deaths reported was 42; the seven-day average is 127. At that scale of failure, Ferguson must be a shoo-in for a knighthood.

Look, Covid cases in hospitals have certainly increased over the past 10 days, but ICU occupancy remains as it has been for the past few months. There has been no increase in patients needing high-dependency care, which points to omicron being far less severe than its nasty predecessors. If the vaccines didn’t work against omicron, we would definitely be seeing more very sick patients by now, given that cases started to spread to the older age group about three weeks ago. Currently, no NHS region is at even half the Covid occupancy of last January and ICU occupancy is only a third of what it was this time last year. The NHS, whatever its management may claim, can cope.

“There is nothing good about omicron,” said Professor (now Sir) Chris Whitty. How wrong he was. Omicron, as the South Africans tried to tell us, appears to be a softly purring pussycat compared to the voracious tiger unleashed on a population with very little immunity in the spring of 2020.

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