COVID: our big test is what happens next

Can you imagine it? The cold beer brought to you in a tall glass so chilled there is condensation thick on the outside, obscuring the golden, frothy, elixir you’ve been waiting for. A hot sunny day, you are sticky but relaxed and it is the waiting staff that buzz around toiling. And the sound of people laughing and conversing, in groups (!), at tables all around you… and your friend leans in to deliver the punchline of a joke. Your whole table bursts into laughter.

These days may be near upon us. From 12th April, we can meet in pub gardens in groups of up to 6 people. There is light at the end of the coronavirus tunnel.

The story of the COVID vaccine is one of human triumph, a scientific work that may rival trips to the moon, if I may be so bold. When faced with a global pandemic, humanity was able to produce not one but several cures in less than a year. Our returning rights and freedoms have come from this great feat of bioscience, chemistry and logistics.

Some of you may have baulked at my description above.

I know many people who can’t imagine crowds or ‘the old normal’ and some who are physically repulsed from the idea of going to a crowded supermarket or anywhere else that might have ‘germs.’ But how long will it take for our elastic brains to twang back in the other direction, to become used to close proximity and blowing out the candles on a cake before someone else eats it and … hugs?

After a year of lockdowns that started too late and finished too early, Boris Johnson is now being praised for a more cautious approach to the easing of restrictions. These steps should be baby steps and we should remain vigilant, he says. There is still a risk today, as we await the vaccine’s full rollout.

And yet, it is what we do after we’ve all had the vaccine in this country that matters most.

Initially, we must work on an international vaccine program, ensuring that every country has access to large numbers of doses. First, because it’s inhumane to let millions of people die from a preventable disease. Second, because we have already seen the UK variant, the South African variant and the Brazilian variant and we do not want this disease mutating beyond what our current vaccine efforts can suppress.

Domestically, we must focus on preparing for the next pandemic. This was not a once-in-a-lifetime event. COVID or something like it has been predicted for decades and a pandemic like this has been the top risk according to UK public health advisers and officials for many years. The UK government ignored warnings from pandemic simulations and failed to stockpile protective equipment (PPE) to put us in a good place to limit the damage of coronavirus and we must learn from that and make sure we prepare for the next time.

Culturally, we must adapt too. How many will be so happy to remove their facemasks that they never want to put them back on again? And yet, after SARS, people in Hong Kong, China and other parts of Asia adopted the practice of wearing a mask anytime they have a cold: just in case. It helped them when COVID arrived and after COVID we must become a mask-wearing culture too. Let’s be clear, the last decade has seen SARS, MERS, Avian Flu, Swine Flu and Covid – these outbreaks happen regularly and can erupt in almost any location. Your next seasonal sniffle could just be a cold or you could be patient zero for the next global pandemic – be responsible!

And, as ever, we must do more globally to prevent environmental damage. Yes, pandemics seem to be increasing in risk and likelihood because of environmental issues. As we cut down rainforest and encroach on animal habitats, we not only reduce biodiversity but we increase the likelihood of disease development within animals and of animal-to-human transference.  If we want to prevent another pandemic we need to worry about our impact on the environment.

These steps are vital and stretch from our own individual actions to our international politics. There is something to be done at every level if we’re to reduce the risk of another 150,000 dead here in the UK and many millions dead around the world. We cannot rest on our laurels, we cannot just relax with that ice cold beer, we must keep up our guard afterthe vaccine if we’re to avoid the need for another.


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