The pandemic may be over, but the true cost is only just emerging

Fingers crossed, but for the first time in two years it is possible to say with some degree of certainty that the pandemic, and the measures that were deemed necessary to contain it, are essentially behind us, not just in the UK, but in much of the rest of the world too.

There have admittedly been several false dawns before, when policymakers have felt confident enough to start lifting restrictions only for their hopes to be dashed anew.

But thanks in part to the salvation of vaccines, this time feels notably different. Which is just as well, for the nation was at breaking point.

Even if ministers thought reimposition appropriate, it seems doubtful such action would any longer be politically possible.

As it is, the latest and now dominant strain of the Covid-19 virus has thankfully turned out to be relatively benign, confirming a pattern seen in a number of past pandemics of progressively more infectious but less potent mutation in the pathogen as time goes by.

Governments around the world dashed to reimpose tight lockdown restrictions when the omicron variant first emerged, fearing another steep rise in hospitalisations and deaths, but in many cases it has proved an unnecessary over-reaction, and the measures are now being steadily dismantled.

Leading the way is plucky little Denmark, which last week became the first European country to lift virtually all remaining restrictions.

Not so fast, the beleaguered Boris Johnson will protest; desperate for “red meat” to distract from the disintegration of his government, he’d gladly claim first prize for himself.

But even in England, some restrictions remain, the most notable being the requirement on those testing positive to self isolate for between five and 10 days.

Venues can also ask for a Covid pass – showing evidence of vaccination – and face masks continue to be required in some settings. In Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland a much broader set of measures remain in place, for now.

Yet the urge to get back to normal is now almost universal – excepting, that is, in the hermetically sealed antipodeans and “zero tolerance” China.

And even with the latter, where the economic costs of repeated regional lockdowns are becoming ever more apparent, it is widely assumed that things will change once the joyless and snowless Winter Olympics are out of the way.

France, the Netherlands and Ireland have already followed the UK and Denmark in beginning to ease restrictions, and Switzerland is committed to removing all of them by the middle of the month.

Some of the numbers that instruct the change in approach are really quite striking. Hospitalisations and deaths have remained low right through the latest wave, despite rapidly rising infections.

In the UK, total deaths per million, including those dying within 28 days of a positive Covid test, are actually now running at below the five-year seasonal average.

It’s the same in Germany and Sweden, where deaths are also below average levels for this time of year. And if that’s the case, what is the justification for maintaining any kind of restriction, never mind the still oppressive constraints that still rule in some parts of the Continent?

According to analysis by Longview Economics, the UK case fatality rate has fallen to just 0.1pc, against nearly 1pc at the peak of the first wave in April 2020.

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