A couple of weeks ago my regular update was noting the government’s aim of vaccinating the 14.7m most vulnerable by mid-February. We all had some doubts whether such a high bar would be achieved and so it is hugely welcome that the figure was reached a day ahead of forecast and has been exceeded.
Over 15m have now received their first vaccination and the next most vulnerable groups, those over 65 and those younger but with underlying health conditions, are now getting their jabs.
This now gives us, with great confidence, a clearer roadmap towards returning to normal life once more. Given that the maximum immune response is achieved 21 days after vaccination, this points towards the 8th March as a key date already touted as the day that schools will start to re-open.
By that time the most at risk groups, accounting for 88% of potential deaths and 55% of hospitalisations, will have a good level of Covid immunity. We are already seeing massive weekly falls in all Covid metrics – infections, hospitalisations and deaths so I would prefer that we look further ahead and plan now for the re-opening of other facets of our lives and the economy.
The government’s vaccination plan is for most of the remaining vulnerable groups – aged 50 and upwards to be vaccinated by the end of March. This will provide for a good level of protection for 99% of those most likely to suffer the gravest effects of the infection. This makes a significant opening up from Easter both sensible and credible, with legal restrictions to life lifted as soon as practicable and sensible thereafter. Additionally, existing concoctions of drugs, repurposed from their original intent as steroids, anti-arthritis, anti-inflammatory and anti-viral, together with widespread and freely available rapid testing puts us in a hugely different place than where we were a year ago.
There will be those who will say that the various mutations – the South African and Brazilian ones, and there will doubtless be others in due course, means that we daren’t open up too early or at all. That is not a credible position. We need an honest debate about how to live with Covid.
Mutations will arise on a regular basis, it’s what viruses do: thankfully the current vaccines still have good effectiveness against current known variants, but doubtless a new dominant strain will come along in due course upon which the efficacy of current vaccines is limited. We will then, as we do with annual seasonal flu, have to create a new version of vaccine to cope. If any good can emerge out of this global pandemic, difficult as it is to see at present, it will be the rapidity of scientific response for vaccine creation and the new knowledge being put to positive use against other diseases and conditions on the back of what has been learned.
I can foresee annual Covid jabs being given alongside annual flu jabs suppressing significantly but not eliminating risk. This may mean a number of Covid related premature deaths each year, each one a true tragedy, but we do accept, however painfully, a background of annual mortality due to seasonal flu, accidents and misadventures without bringing the normal pleasure of living to a standstill. We must never forget the other negative and serious health and societal effects that lockdowns bring. A moribund economy cannot finance the services that we want and need.
With the cold spell behind us and the long dark nights rapidly receding, I feel a new optimism that March will bring a fresh start. Let’s work together to bear down on infection numbers, take up the vaccination as it is offered and look towards a positive 2021.