IT is, unfortunately, unlikely that this year will see the eradication of Covid, or of measures to cope with the disease. Previous pandemics, the nature of the virus, and our experience of variants – as well as the fact that many people around the world have not yet been vaccinated – make it more probable that it will continue to be a significant problem. But 2022 will have to be the year in which we learn to live with our new circumstances more realistically and effectively.
We cannot abandon vigilance, let up on efforts to protect the vulnerable, or discount the possibility that further waves and variants may require decisive action. But nor is it feasible indefinitely to maintain restrictions which come with significant costs.
These affect not only the economy – though it is imperative that we get it going again – but other aspects of life. We must tackle other health issues, including managing long-term conditions, routine operations and getting A&E, GPs and dentistry back to more normal operation. Something must be done to repair the damage suffered by pupils and students; business will need stimulus and support; normal social interactions and liberties must be restored as far as possible.
That may not, probably will not, entail a return to life as it was before 2020. But an excess of caution – understandable on public health grounds – would not be sustainable, even if it were desirable, and is likely to create conditions, costs and harms even more damaging than those we have endured.
There are causes for optimism. A year after the approval of vaccines, we are undoubtedly in a better position; 52 million Britons have had at least their first dose, and there has been an encouraging take-up of booster jags. Across the UK, more than 33 million have been administered in a remarkably short period, the third-highest total of any country.
Our knowledge of the importance of factors such as ventilation is much improved. The Omicron variant, despite the extremely alarming rate of its spread, has milder effects and is not leading to unsupportable increases in hospitalisation. South Africa, where it was first identified, is lifting restrictions, having concluded that it has passed the peak of its fourth wave with only a marginal increase in overall deaths. The NHS has not been overwhelmed.
But NHS staff still face huge difficulties. They deserve continued praise and support, but this period has exposed issues that must, in the long term, be resolved. It cannot continue to operate on the very limits of sustainability – which it was doing even before Covid. That may be a long-standing failure of successive governments, but it is not just a matter of funding; systems in most other developed nations have managed better with comparable resources.
One crucial component in managing to live with the disease will be testing; the uptake is heartening, but there is little point in insisting on it and championing its usefulness while being unable to produce enough tests. Unlike the largely successful vaccine delivery, that’s an obvious failure of planning that the UK Government must rectify urgently.
In that respect, though some of the Scottish Government’s measures may have been excessively cautious, and may need revisiting, it is difficult to deny that the First Minister has shown enormous focus and leadership, for which she deserves credit. Above all – and this is no trivial consideration – she has looked a credible and responsible pair of hands.
By contrast, the Prime Minister has been inconsistent, worryingly casual, and too often out seemed of his depth. His gamble against new restrictions in England may have been vindicated by events – though it’s early days. But his dithering, bluster, inconsistency, and the irresponsibility and avoidable blunders of his administration inspire little confidence. He simply does not look as if he has the necessary drive and commitment, or grip on the situation. Mr Johnson continues to be beset by problems, largely of his own making, or springing from his own character. His political fortunes will not recover unless he overcomes those deficiencies.