We have all made sacrifices over the past 18 months. People have stayed home to protect others. Businesses have shuttered and many people have lost their incomes and jobs. Trips to see family members overseas have been cancelled; weddings have been postponed. As an initial strategy, these pandemic rules made sense. Our collective sacrifices saved lives and bought scientists time to deliver solutions. In the race to produce a vaccine, time was the currency that counted most.
But now we have several safe and effective vaccines. Hospitals are more experienced at dealing with Covid-19. We know that ventilating buildings, wearing face coverings indoors and avoiding crowded spaces and workplaces when feeling unwell all help to stop the spread of the virus.
It is hard to overstate how transformative vaccines in particular are. Though less effective at stopping the spread of the Delta variant, they are still remarkably effective at preventing severe disease and death. In most instances, people who avoided infection until being vaccinated acquired another layer of protection; they can still get infected, but it is highly unlikely they will end up in hospital or die.
It can be confusing to know how to live in this new situation, where vaccines have transformed but not solved the Covid crisis in richer countries. Legal restrictions have lifted across the UK, but people have not resumed their pre-Covid behaviours. Most are still acting cautiously. This is wise: we know how serious the virus is, and we know that underestimating it is foolish.
At the same time, the collective experiences denied to us during the pandemic are part of being human. Whether it’s going to live music concerts, sitting in the cinema or lifting weights in the gym, the rituals and experiences that were dangerous because of the virus are those which give us meaning and joy. I have started doing some of the things I love again, taking part in hot yoga and spin classes. Life is better and brighter when we can do the things that make our lives meaningful.
In many ways, now is the moment we were holding out for. The UK has achieved high vaccination coverage; a recent ONS study estimates over 93% of adults have antibodies across the four nations. The vaccination programme has raced to get a lid on new variants such as Alpha and Delta that are dramatically more transmissible. In terms of uptake, it has been extraordinarily effective.
While life hasn’t returned to pre-Covid normality, it is nonetheless time to start getting back to living. The challenge now is to return to the activities we enjoy while maintaining a sense of caution and consideration for others, particularly those who are immunocompromised, who can’t get vaccinated and children under 16 who haven’t had access to the vaccine. Because not everyone is equally protected against the virus, it makes sense to keep wearing masks in public spaces and acting with others in mind to avoid spreading the virus.
We made sacrifices to buy time for a scientific solution that has now arrived. Thanks to vaccines, we are now in a position where we can make informed decisions about how to take part in previously risky activities. You might think of this like a “risk budget”; if you are doubly vaccinated and get tested regularly, you can go back to doing the things that make you happy and feel alive, deciding where and how you choose to take risks. Covid-19 has not gone away, but the vaccines allow us to think of it like the other risks we take, such as driving on motorways or travelling to foreign countries.
In the early months of the pandemic, when there was still considerable uncertainty about the potential for scientific breakthroughs, suppressing the virus entirely through the so-called zero-Covid approach was, in my view, the best early strategy for countries able to achieve it. I made the case for this approach across the UK in summer 2020 in order to avoid the second wave and a winter lockdown. Antibody prevalence was less than 10% at the time. Now even the countries that pursued this model, such as Australia and New Zealand, need a more sustainable strategy. This will involve vaccinating 80-90% of their populations and opening up cautiously to international travel. All countries are running towards the same goal: mass vaccination coverage.
There are still questions over what will happen this winter in the UK and Europe. But the problems we may face in the future will pale in comparison to the devastation that Delta is causing in countries such as Peru, Namibia, Indonesia and Nepal. Vaccines are largely unavailable in these places, health systems are collapsing and people face the choice of going to work and catching Covid-19 or staying home and going hungry.
Now that we’re able to go back to living, there’s no excuse for not caring about the rest of the world. Rich governments urgently need to start putting real investment into vaccinating poorer countries, whether by building regional manufacturing hubs, waiving intellectual property rights or investing in other countries’ medical capacity. The UK government should be doing more to help on these issues and ensure Covid becomes a manageable issue, because the pandemic is not over until it is over everywhere.