Kings College Hospital anaesthetist Dr Steve James generated reams of negative press for the South East London hospital last weekend when he challenged Health Secretary Sajid Javid over compulsory Covid-19 vaccinations for NHS staff. Widely panned as an anti-vaxxer perhaps the most important note to take from the fallout is, well, the lack of fallout…

While it must be stressed that his is a lonely view among the overwhelming majority of his medical colleagues (and acknowledge that there was likely a nuance lost in the reporting) the televised exchange would have been devastating just a few weeks ago. An NHS consultant questioning the wisdom of booster shots would have been a PR disaster for the government and the efforts to protect the public as the Omicron variant took hold back in December, but now we’re potentially on the other side of the peak and it suddenly seems like no biggie. Let’s talk about Boris’s parties or gas prices instead. So is Covid over now?

So where are we at with Omicron?

Let’s not get ahead of ourselves, there is more covid around than ever before! Last week it was estimated that one in fifteen people in the entire population had coronavirus and 200,000 tested positive in one single day, a record.

Not very encouraging, why are we even having this conversation?

The numbers in London are looking like they have peaked while the rest of the country appears to be following suit. And while the highly infectious Omicron variant led to near vertical graphs on the way up, they’re falling off fast too.

And how dangerous is Omicron looking?

Not nearly as bad as feared. When (now Sir) Chris Whitty appeared in that pre-Christmas address, the one where we thought Boris was about to cancel the whole shebang again, it was clear the Chief Medical Officer was having sleepless nights. And Sir Chris has the demeanour of a man who is no stranger to sleepless nights.

However, the data we were seeing from South Africa back in December, suggesting that the new variant was far milder than original covid, beta or delta appears to have been borne out by events. While hospitalisations have risen, they haven’t yet reached the point where the NHS is overwhelmed.

And those that are getting seriously ill are, reportedly, mainly the unvaccinated. But over all hospitalisations are shorter and less severe, with the numbers going onto ventilators remaining pretty stable despite the soaring infection rates.

And deaths?

Mercifully low. The death toll in this stage of the pandemic appears relatively flat. And while each is clearly a tragedy, there is some hope in the fact that by now in previous waves we were seeing the infections graph transposing closely over the deaths one a few weeks later, which doesn’t appear to be happening… yet.

Update at 16:00: today’s figures are markedly higher than the trend, so my last point may be in the process of being disproven!

Will there be more restrictions?

Almost certainly not unless something changes. While the Scottish and Welsh governments introduced stricter rules ahead of Christmas and New Year, Boris took a gamble and decided against. Perhaps for political or maybe medical reasons. Either way, he seems to have called it right.

The chances now of the PM declaring any further restrictions unless the science drastically shifts is next to zero. Which is good news for the economy. Less so if you spend the next year suffering from Long Covid.

What about new variants?

Covid looks at headlines like this one (´So is Covid over now?’) and says ‘hold my beer’…

But the combination of prior infection and the most boosted population in the world suggests that we’re nearing that much-fabled ‘herd immunity’. A future variant would need to be radically different to previous versions to overcome our immunity and the expert opinion seems to be that the relatively mild (in medical terms) effects of Omicron appear to suggest that the virus will get progressively less dangerous as it evolves.

So we may be nearing the edge of the woods.

Are you touching wood?

You bet…

So what happens next?

Expect to hear the phrase ‘living with Covid’ a lot over the coming months. And the government has already started down the path of prepping for a post-covid world.

Today PCR testing for asymptomatic covid has been officially suspended, ostensibly to cope with demand but don’t expect it to come back. Meanwhile isolation periods have been reduced from 10 days (originally it was 14 days) to seven days provided you test negative on a lateral flow test. There’s even chat about stopping free lateral flows altogether.

Meanwhile entry requirements to the country have been relaxed, as Omicron is already so prevalent, which will hopefully encourage post-Covid travel (the Red List has been suspended too).

The next step will be the relaxation of mask mandating on public transport, shops and venues like theatres and cinemas. And then…

…normality? We hope.


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