They think it’s all over – it isn’t yet.

Apart from a lot of use of the phrase “post-pandemic”, we are not seeing quite so many mentions of Covid these days, by the government or the media. But most of us know – from friends and relatives taken ill, apologetic guests who can’t socialise, and probably at least one acquaintance hit by long-term malaise – that the virus is still with us.

People continue to die of Covid in hospital (although intensive care numbers have gone down) and the Omicron BA.4 and BA.5 variants are thought to be infecting not only the vulnerable but also the vaccinated and the previously infected.
Covid cases in summer 2022 are reckoned to be around the same levels as they were in April 2021 (three months before so-called Freedom Day). The UK has lost 200,000 people to the virus, and the Office for National Statistics has reported two million cases of long Covid in the UK – almost double the total at the beginning of 2022.

But public concern appears be tailing off; there is hardly any mask-wearing on transport, at crowded events or in supermarkets. And many see a return to “normal” outgoing life as vital for mental health and for the economy.

The BMJ (British Medical Journal) has unequivocally blamed government inactivity for the fact that “living with Covid” means, for many, “dying with Covid”. It says: “The government has repeatedly sent out messages implying ‘it’s all over’ and there is ‘no cause for concern’. They have also removed support for even the most basic measures – such as free testing.”

The sole recent government initiative has been the announcement that everyone over 50 will be offered a Covid booster to “ease pressures on the NHS, particularly during the busy winter period”.

But inside the NHS it already feels like winter is here. Exhausted staff are exposed – and often succumb – to Covid, and morale is rock bottom. Patients’ sympathy for the NHS is tested by long waits – for ambulances, in A&E and for non-urgent treatments. Six million people are on waiting lists for non-Covid treatments; in 2021 more than 100,000 died while still on a waiting list.

The BMJ has detailed measures to “protect and promote health and wellbeing in the longer term, with consequent benefits to productivity and the economy”. These include: clear public health advice from the government; proper ventilation in public buildings, especially schools; free test kits; and financial support for Covid victims unable to work.

Politicians, including would-be prime minister Liz Truss, repeat the mantra: “Covid was a one-in-100-years event.” But can we know that? It may have been a century since the 1918 pandemic but that is far from an indicator of when a new threat will arise. Complex human-animal-environment interactions plus relentless international travel make a mockery of any predictions.

And if we end up ignoring this pandemic – if we don’t get this right – how will we cope with the next one?

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