Have you noticed in the past couple of weeks that all your mates and mates' mates are suddenly posting pics of double red lines again? That's because COVID is back on the rise across the UK, with more than half a million new cases recorded in the past week, up nearly 50 percent from the week before. This takes the total number of cases since the start of the pandemic to 19.9 million.
The latest figures from the Office for National Statistics suggest that in the week ending the 11th of March, around 1 in 25 people had COVID in England, with as much as 1 in 13 in Northern Ireland. At least 50 percent of those cases in England are thought to be caused by the more infectious sub-strain of the Omicron variant, sinisterly labeled “stealth Omicron”. So yeah, a great time for everyone.
To add to the relentlessness, we’re still getting mixed messages from the government. Health Secretary Savid Javid said this week that a rise in cases is to be “expected” and not a cause for concern. He also said that the UK remains in a “very good position”, but that adults should get the booster vaccine if they haven’t already to reduce the risk of serious infection.
The last remaining COVID restrictions in Scotland and Wales are due to be lifted in the two weeks. England and Northern Ireland have already scrapped their isolation requirements, with free mass testing expected to end on the 1st of April as part of Boris Johnson’s “living with COVID” plan.
But are we really supposed to just… live with COVID? Like a cold? Why exactly are cases rising across the UK right now, despite boosters? And what does that mean in a post-restriction world?
Dr Earim Chaudry is an NHS Clinical Director and MD of the men’s health platform Manual. He says that although cases are rising and that can be “alarming,” there isn’t a reason to panic. “One of the reasons for the increase in cases is due to social mixing,” he says. “As spring approaches, people are mixing more frequently, visiting friends and family, continuing with leisure activities and returning to the office.”
Dr Chaudry also says that more relaxed attitudes towards COVID could be a reason for the spike – a symptom of what he calls “pandemic fatigue.” “Many people are simply learning to live with the virus. This means that they aren’t taking the same precautions as they once did, including wearing a mask or washing their hands.”
The combo of an increase in cases and lack of legal restrictions can feel confusing. If we do test positive, should we still isolate even if we’re not required to? Catching COVID might be relatively low risk if you’re young and healthy, but what about elderly and immunocompromised people?
Professor Mark Jit is an epidemiologist at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine. He says that continuing to isolate would “definitely” help to reduce transmission in the community.
“The spike in COVID cases is likely to be driven by the BA.2 or 'stealth Omicron' variant,” he says. “And while there is no longer a legal requirement to isolate, the government is still recommending that [people] stay home and avoid contact for at least five days. People who have been fully vaccinated can still transmit the infection if they are positive, although they are much better protected than unvaccinated people.”
In other words: No, you’re not required to isolate, though you still should.
One of many questions about our return to regular life is whether another booster vaccine will be rolled out soon and if it will be made available to young people. The Health Secretary has already said that an additional dose will be offered to all adults over 75 and the most vulnerable over 12s this spring and that another booster programme, which is aimed at a wider group of people, should be ready by the autumn.
Denis Kinane, an immunologist and founding scientist at Cignpost Diagnostics, believes that a combination of boosters and “gold standard” PCR testing is needed to properly live with the virus. “Getting boosted will help top up protection against severe illness from a COVID infection,” he says. “I would highly recommend that people, especially those in vulnerable categories, get their booster when eligible, to protect yourself and those around you.”
“Until now, the UK's globally lauded testing regimen has ensured that new variants have been quickly detected, enabling the government to take swift action such as super-charging the booster programme late in 2021,” he continues.
“With this in mind, it is sensible to retain an element of testing, including gold-standard PCR testing. This will allow us to regularly analyse how the virus is behaving and modify our response effectively to contain its spread and take precautionary measures that protect public health.”
Despite the general confusion and anxiety, the main takeaway is not to panic and to use your common sense – kind of like if you had norovirus. If you’re coughing like a chain-smoker, maybe do a PCR, and maybe don’t turn up feverish to the function.