Health

Iain Macwhirter: Christmas may not be cancelled, but it’ll never be the same again


MIGHT Christmas itself become a casualty of the age of Covid? Is this annual super-spreader event still justified or safe?

Killjoy scientists on SAGE, the Scientific Advisory Group on Emergencies, reportedly discussed the idea of moving Christmas to the summer, as it is already in Australia and New Zealand, on health grounds.

I suppose those who regard Christmas as essentially racist because it’s white might be pleased. But I don’t think Boris Johnson or Nicola Sturgeon are likely to think seriously of emulating Oliver Cromwell and cancelling our originally pagan festival of the Winter Solstice. No government would dare meddle.

But it may be that the public do it for them – after all, the lesson of Covid so far is that the public have been, if anything, in advance of government in behaviour change. It’s a safe bet that “Winterval”, as some progressives like to call it, will never be quite the same again.

Christmas is likely to remain a time of anxiety rather than celebration for some years at least. That will mean at the very least a fundamental reassessment of festive hygiene. We have become more aware than ever before that Christmas is a petri dish for infections of all kinds. Between 10,000 and 20,000 people die every winter from flu and other respiratory disease. Then there are the unpleasant non-fatal infections like strep throat and winter vomiting bugs.

Our immune systems are at their least resilient in the depths of winter, yet we indulge in behaviour almost purpose-designed to transmit viruses of all kinds. All that kissing and hugging, mixing up the generations, holding boozy gatherings and travelling around the country. It may be that we end up carrying vaccine passports of one kind or another as a matter of course.

 

Nicola Sturgeon delivering her Covid update yesterday

Nicola Sturgeon delivering her Covid update yesterday

 

Will offices ever hold boozy Christmas parties in future? Not in Number 10 certainly. Mistletoe? forget it. Old people may find themselves increasingly isolated as people rein back on family gatherings and place seniors in a kind of involuntary quarantine. Public health warnings will become as ubiquitous at Christmas as those hideous shopping ads.

Governments and the NHS will on high alert in the run-up to future festive seasons. The Omicron variant has come pretty much from nowhere. Until last week, there was a widespread assumption that Covid wars were over bar the shouting. The press and media were obsessed with a cheese and wine party that may or may not have happened in Number 10 a year ago. This, while a potentially deadly new variant was quietly establishing itself in our midst.

Most of us are still hoping that Omicron will be mild and merely the latest stage in the evolution of this coronavirus to something like the common cold. But we have no firm scientific grounds for believing this, only anecdotal evidence from medics like the South African GP, Doctor Angelique Coetzee, who believes Omicron is a bit of a pussycat compared with Delta. The message from epidemiologists and public health experts here, like Professor Devi Sridhar of Edinburgh University, is less agreeable. They think there will more likely be a succession of Rho, Sigma and Upsilon variants emerging in parts of the world where vaccination programmes are patchy or non existent.

Read more: Vaccine hoarding: why governments will always take care of their own

Yesterday, Mr Johnson’s Government suffered a quixotic rebellion over vaccine certification, as puzzling as it was irrelevant to the actual health emergency. Admittedly, there is little evidence that our existing vaccine “passports” are reliable. They have been overtaken by Omicron, which we are told can hit the double-vaccinated almost as hard as the non. But that doesn’t mean the idea is wrong in principle. Booster passports are almost certainly on the cards. Certification seems to work in France and other countries.

The UK Government’s Plan B is essentially Scotland’s Plan A, since Nicola Sturgeon introduced vaccine certification in October. But the lesson from both regimes is that Covid-19 will always find a way of getting round attempts to contain it. Both Mr Johnson and Ms Sturgeon in her statement yesterday seem now to be putting less faith in lockdown and more in people doing the right thing. We’re assured by both Boris and Nicola that Christmas has not been cancelled – yet.

We are urged to avoid mixing in groups of more than three households, except, confusingly when out clubbing or pubbing. The Liberal Democrat leader, Alex Cole Hamilton, pointed out raves are still being organised in Scotland apparently within the law. Mass vaccination centres are to be pressed into service, following lobbying by the Scottish Conservatives.

Read more: Boris is in a culture war with his own party … and he’s losing it

Businesses are not closing, though in Scotland they are being put under a legal duty to “avoid bottlenecks and overcrowding” and allow employees to work at home “when reasonably practicable”. God knows how a statute so vague could be legally enforced. Ms Sturgeon wants more help from the UK Treasury to help save businesses threatened by these incoherent new rules.

Lateral flow tests have become the new Covid passports and both Ms Sturgeon and Mr Johnson are calling for people to show negative tests when entering clubs and pubs. This is all very well, but these tests are not exactly foolproof. Reporting relies on trust and anyone can carry around one of those little white strips with the red line at C. TikTok is even advising school students on how to get a false positives by using hand sanitiser or fruit juice in the tests so they can cut classes.

We are assured that Scotland is the most vaccinated and boosted region of the UK, which is good news at least. It’s not clear whether those emergency hospitals that were opened and never used last year might finally be brought into service. With the “tsunami” of infections heading our way, no one really knows. It is at times like this that you realise the governments actually know little more than the rest of us.

But faith in vaccination as the Covid killer is not what it was, that’s for sure. We could be entering a new state of perma-pandemic in which ever greater restrictions are placed on our personal freedoms. And when Christmastime takes on a new and sinister resonance.

Our columns are a platform for writers to express their opinions. They do not necessarily represent the views of The Herald





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