Fortunately, the UK now appears to have passed the peak of the recent heat wave and the last wave COVID. But there will be more of both – and in the future, we might think about how we protect ourselves from COVID the same way we protect ourselves from bad weather.
An umbrella is a useful analogy. If we look out the window or check the weather forecast and see rain, we’ll probably take an umbrella with us. Likewise, if COVID cases start to rise or a new wave is predicted, we might consider picking up a face mask, for example.
But just as we don’t need to carry an umbrella with us when the weather is nice, we don’t need to wear masks all the time. Of course, some people may choose to wear masks more consistently in certain settings, while others may forego wearing them altogether. This is the nature of the current phase of the pandemic that we find ourselves in, much of which is based on personal choice and responsibility.
Thanks in large part to the impact of vaccines, we no longer need the kind of rules-based risk management approach we saw earlier in the pandemic. But the overall analogy can guide our behavior and our choices in various areas of our response in the future. Beyond masks, these include testing, ventilation and social distancing.
The idea is that we can take or step up precautions when we need them most (when COVID cases are on the rise), before easing them, if we want, when infection rates and risks are weaker.
What might this look like in practice?
Let’s say we start to see COVID cases increase again in the fall. It’s a distinct possibility.
It then becomes even more important to pass a test if we have any symptoms that could be related to COVID. This will help inform our decision to minimize contact with others and to what extent.
Isolation is no longer a legal requirement, and I believe it should remain so. However, if possible, staying home while we feel unwell is a sensible and considerate thing to do, especially when COVID rates are high.
Distancing must also remain a choice. But during a surge of infections, people may wish to maintain more distance between themselves and others in stores, or may choose to avoid crowded places.
Go back on masks, when cases start to increase, the risk of contracting and transmitting COVID also increases, so masks become a more useful and reasonable precaution. They can be particularly useful in certain circumstances – for example, if someone is feeling unwell but cannot self-isolate, when visiting vulnerable people or in crowded indoor spaces.
Opening the windows even a little can increase the fresh air inside and also help reduce the likelihood to transmit the virus.
Finally, the number of people in the UK who have had a COVID booster vaccine is considerably lower than the number who received their first and second doses. We know that immunity to vaccines wanes and boosters restore vaccine effectiveness. So if we’re starting to see an increase in cases, or if we’re looking at future wavesit would make sense for people who are behind on their vaccines to get up to speed.
It’s been a year since England “freedom day”, when most legal COVID measures were removed. But the pandemic is far from over. In addition to the high number of daily infections, long COVID is very common, and the pressure on the NHS is always unsustainable.
In a recent article from British medical journalProfessor Susan Michie and I reflected on some of the lessons we have learned over the past year.
Among these, the pandemic has shown us that behavior is not solely due to an individual’s choice or motivation. People’s actions are also shaped by opportunities and support they are given – or not given. For example, while some people may want to stay home if they have symptoms, they may not if neither their employer nor the government is providing financial support.
People should be encouraged and supported as much as possible to stay home when sick, especially when cases are high. Amid a winter surge of COVID, Australia has restored its pandemic leave disaster payments to allow people with COVID and without appropriate sick pay to stay home and not lose out financially.
In addition, governments could ensure that free at-home testing is available during times when infections are likely to increase or start to increase.
And it is important that, to mitigate the impacts of future waves, vaccination coverage is as high as possible. Public health campaigns should target both unvaccinated and partially vaccinated people, while encouraging people (especially the most vulnerable) to accept booster offers.
We also need more action to ensure adequate ventilation. In the United States, billions of dollars are made available for improved air quality in schools and other public buildings.
I have argued before that the British government was putting too much responsibility in the hands of the public. Like climate change, pandemics are global issues, and addressing them requires a collective effort.
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