A serious debate has started at last about what it really means to “live with Covid”. It is driven by an acceptance that we cannot continue to vaccinate and test great swathes of the population for ever.
The omicron variant of the coronavirus has offered hope that it has mutated into a benign disease that will give most people nothing worse than a bad cold. Hospitalisation rates are nowhere near as high as last year and bed occupancy is even lower than it was in some bad flu years before the pandemic hit.
Countries like Scotland and Wales that have persisted with tough restrictions on activities and gatherings have made no impact on the spread of omicron. Indeed, cases are rising faster there than in England.
While 150,000 people have now died with or from Covid since the pandemic began, the evidence is strong that this is now a relatively mild endemic disease to which we will have to adapt.
The Government concedes that this is the case but only up to a point. Nadhim Zahawi, the Education Secretary, wants the isolation period reduced from seven to five days but only if scientific advisers allow, despite the staffing difficulties the seven-day policy is causing. The US and Germany allow isolation to end after five days.
More worryingly, he rejected suggestions that the Government is about to scale back the testing regime by charging for the kits, as happens in most other countries, or abolishing the requirement for asymptomatic people to take one.
It was reported at the weekend that free lateral flow tests could be limited to high-risk settings – such as care homes, hospitals and schools – and to people with symptoms. Mr Zahawi said he “did not recognise” the reported change and yet it is precisely the way the Government should be thinking. We can see with our eyes that omicron is mild and that mass testing is not stopping its spread so why persist with it? To what end?
Mr Zahawi acknowledged that the Government wanted the UK “to be one of the first major economies to demonstrate to the world” how a transition could be made from a pandemic to an endemic disease. He said we would then “deal with this however long it remains with us, whether that’s five, six, seven, 10 years”. The reality is that it is likely to be a lot longer than that.