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June 10, 2021
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Living with COVID: The next step on the roadmap

Jim McManus, Vice President, Association of Directors of Public Health

The UK, alongside the rest of the world, has faced hurdle after hurdle whilst dealing with the effects of Covid. The determination and patience shown by our communities have been truly remarkable. The impact of this pandemic on our daily lives cannot be understated, nor can the incredible scientific and medical advances that have been made over the last year. However, we now find ourselves yet again, at a crucial point as we approach the final stage of the roadmap.   

Although many of us may have marked the day on our calendars, it is vital that we are guided by the data, not dates. Covid is not going to disappear on the 21st of June and lifting all measures as early as the 21st risks reversing the significant progress we have made. We must be realistic about what lies ahead - it can be assumed that even with vaccines, variants of the virus will circulate endemically for some time to come. We must therefore find a way of living, working, and studying as safely as possible whilst Covid continues to circulate. As with most disease control, there is no magic bullet. Instead, we must continue to use a combination strategy as outlined in our guidance Living Safely with Covid. It is the combination of measures, each inadequate in and of themselves, that work together to disrupt transmission and reduce harm. 

One of the key tools in our arsenal is the vaccine. The vaccine has helped to reduce severe disease and mortality amongst the most vulnerable and has overall made Covid a more manageable disease. Our priority must remain to vaccinate all those eligible, ensure everyone comes forward for their second dose and reconfigure the vaccine as needed. We should take huge pride in the success of the vaccine roll out – however we must not take our foot off the gas now.   

There is increasing evidence showing that the vaccination programme, as intended, is breaking the link between Covid cases and deaths. However, as new variants begin to take hold, this break is becoming more uncertain. The greater transmissibility of the Delta variant – which now makes up the vast majority of new infections in the UK – has also made the vaccination race even tighter.  

The complete lifting of measures on the 21st June not only risks an increase in cases and hospitalisation, but risks the introduction of new variants to the UK which will undermine our vaccination programme and derail our path back to normality.  

For the foreseeable future, we will need to maintain some of the infection prevention and control measures which have now become habitual in the UK. This includes hand hygiene, the use of face coverings and social distancing – ‘hands, face, space’. An effective test, trace and isolate system – which includes adequate support and self-isolation payments – also remains critical to managing the spread of the virus in the longer term.  

We have shown, particularly over the last couple months, that society can open up safely. Businesses and organisations have done a brilliant job at adapting and must continue to be supported to operate as safely as possible. This includes ensuring spaces are well ventilated and surfaces are clean, as well as minimising social contact and encouraging working from home where possible. The same goes for the use of public spaces. Risk assessments should also continue to be undertaken for events so that we can return to the things we love whilst protecting ourselves and others.  

People are rightfully feeling optimistic about the coming months, and we have much to look forward to. However, relaxing our vigilance now, even after we have had the vaccine, could undo what we have all made huge sacrifices to achieve.   

The alternatives of locking down or releasing all measures is a false one. Instead, we would like to see the extension of the current measures – brought into effect on 17th May – and a delay to the full reopening. This will help to prevent a further uptick in cases – particularly in areas experiencing high or enduring transmission – and allow time for more people to be vaccinated and protected against the Delta variant. Patience now, will pay off in the long run.   

People across the UK, and indeed the world, have been harmed by the virus in very different ways. As we look towards recovery, we need to ensure this isn’t forgotten and that we embed long term action to address the inequalities that Covid has exposed, exacerbated, and created in our society. 

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