The headlines about COVID-19 this week have been stark. The chief scientific advisor, Sir Patrick Vallance, has warned us we could see 50,000 coronavirus cases a day by mid-October if we don’t take action to suppress the virus now.
It’s tempting to see this news as another blow to our sense of normality, after a summer where many of us have had the freedom to meet family, go on holidays and return to our favourite shops, pubs and restaurants.
Couple this with the shorter days we are now seeing and the promise of colder weather on the horizon and it may seem the short-term future is looking a little bleak.
But there is a strong argument for saying it’s time we learned to live with the disease. We are in a very different place from six months ago, yet we seem to be adopting the same strategy of suppression and are running the risk of repeating the same mistakes.
Indeed, Prof Carl Heneghan, head of the Centre for Evidence Based Medicine at Oxford University, has described the current situation as “utter chaos,” with a constant stream of new restrictions and schools sending whole year groups home when one person tests positive.
Prof Heneghan is also concerned that old ‘virus fragments’ can be picked up by testing, which is so sensitive it can detect traces of COVID-19 months after a person has stopped being infectious.
So, cases don’t always equal disease. This is reflected in hospital admissions, which are not rising above seasonal averages. Seasonal death rates are also lower than average.
We also have better treatments for COVID-19 and a better understanding of ‘at risk’ categories, so more targeted protection may be more appropriate. We also know the disease really doesn’t affect children.
So, armed with all this knowledge, should we be considering a different course of action? Does lockdown actually have unintended consequences?
There is an argument to say we are lengthening the time to acquire wider immunity, lessening our immunity because of isolation and ultimately increasing death rates from other causes and economic fallout.
Whatever the course of action we take, we are in a much better position to understand the virus, how it behaves and how we can best protect the most vulnerable in our society.
Dr Karl Braine