It’s been a tough year. We started 2021 in lockdown with the new, more infections delta strain of COVID-19 spreading rapidly throughout the population.
Later, a degree of normality returned to our lives as lockdown ended.
The vaccine roll out continued apace reaching to date about nine out of every 10 eligible. The booster campaign was going well too with 40 per cent boosted.
So why do we suddenly feel like we are teetering on a cliff edge?
The reason is the new, even more highly transmissible variant – omicron.
I read the hypotheses that it isn’t as severe as delta and scientists will tell us if that is true. But we do know that it spreads like wildfire and two doses of the vaccine are much less effective in preventing infection.
So if, to use easy figures, it is twice as infectious but only hospitalises and kills people at half the rate of delta then we are back to the same levels of hospitalisations and deaths we have seen in the past. That’s not high-level epidemiology; it’s maths.
And if hospital beds are full of COVID-19 patients then they cannot take patients for routine operations and appointments.
A booster jab gets our protection levels against serious illness up to 85 per cent – a creditable result for any vaccine. That is why the Prime Minister has announced a national mission to offer every eligible person a booster by 31 December.
It is a huge challenge and not just the logistics of boosting a million people a day. It is a challenge because recent events have knocked confidence in the advice politicians are giving, even advice passed on from senior clinicians.
I don’t know the ins and outs of whether there was a party and a quiz, who attended whatever the gathering was or whether it broke the rules or not. The inquiry by the Cabinet Secretary will look at that.
All I know is that whatever happened it seems to have been pretty unwise even if it can be shoe-horned into the definition of ‘within the rules’.
And it has knocked confidence in the advice at a time when we need that confidence to be high. So I ask people, on this critical issue, to see past the daily potboiler of political news. I am not trivialising the political events of the past fortnight but this is not about whether someone had wine and cheese with someone else and whether they should have at all. It is a public health crisis. The advice from the country’s leading clinicians is clear – give us some time to complete the science on the new variant.
My constituency team and I have had our boosters – in fact most of my office staff went to the showground one afternoon last week and got jabbed together. All that team, bar one, are in their 20s and it is important that young and old alike take part in this campaign.
I am no fan of vaccine passports, and the proposals by the government this week stopped short of them but insisted that people should either have to show evidence that they are double-jabbed or, and this is the crucial point, that they have a negative lateral flow test result.
Many venues request this already and I do not think it is unreasonable for large venues to request easily-available proof that a customer does not have an infection. In fact, I think the proof of a negative lateral flow test is a much more sensible precaution than sharing your vaccination status. Kits are available free at pharmacies; a test takes around 15 minutes. It is an inconvenience but right now it should just become part of what we do when preparing to go out. I saw in the media this described as “test before you guest”.
So, as we face another Christmas where our resolve is being tested can I thank everyone who has played their part in this struggle in 2021. Whether you have had your jabs or are working tirelessly to administer them, whether you have had a routine appointment delayed so that we can concentrate on this Herculean effort, whether you work in support services, however you have helped – thank you.
Peace and health to all this Christmas and New Year.