Richard North, 09/01/2022  

We're not quite there yet, but the epidemic has moved inexorably towards its close, its administrative death heralded by today's The Sunday Times.

This paper reports that Johnson is to announce "within weeks" that free lateral flow tests are to be discontinued, when the country will be told to live with Covid. Free tests will only be provided in high-risk settings such as care homes, hospitals and schools, and to people with symptoms.

Contact tracing by NHS Test and Trace is also likely to be scaled back, which in turn will lead to a reduced number of PCR tests being administered – the effect of which, combined with the inevitable reduction of LFTs, will mean that we're no longer slave to the meaningless litany of daily Covid "cases", to which the media has become addicted.

The plan, incidentally, could also save billions of pounds, as more than £6 billion of public money has so far been spent on mass testing with LFTs. But this will only be a fraction of the overall savings to the economy as the nation is released from the spell cast by a disease which is now on a par with seasonal flu.

Even the Guardian and its co-conspirator, the Observer are beginning to recognise that the game is over, the website running a clutch of articles over the weekend which allow for the possibility that the Omicrons have failed in their bid to conquer the Earth.

First out of the traps, appearing in the mid-afternoon yesterday, was a report headed: "Omicron could be 'first ray of light' towards living with Covid", presaging a gradual relaxation of the reign of terror.

However, it is abundantly clear that the "ray of light" is only one step removed from the "glimmer" that Jenny Harries was prepared to allow just before Christmas, as the report's sub-heading tells us that: "UK government scientist predicts possibility of less severe variant but warns 'we're not there yet'". Clearly, the Covid Mafia are not prepared to release their grip just yet.

The "scientist", unfortunately, is another modeller - Dr Mike Tildesley, a member of the Scientific Pandemic Influenza Group on Modelling (Spi-M) and a University of Warwick professor. Showing the same tendency as his co-modeller, prof "lockdown" to be dragged kicking and screaming towards the light.

All the brave modeller is prepared to concede is that omicron "could be" an indicator that in the future there may be a less severe variant that is similar to the common cold. But, with the paper anxious to tell us that Covid "cases" are continuing to rise in the UK (even though they are not), and hospitalisations at are their highest in almost a year (although less than half the January peak), he says, "we're not quite there yet".

These modellers are supposed to be superior to us mere mortals, with their Wizz-kid computer programmes which are so much more efficient than chicken entrails at telling the future.

But all we get from this guru is a prediction that we "may see the emergence of a new variant that is less severe, and ultimately, in the long term, what happens is Covid becomes endemic and you have a less severe version". One suspects that he's spending so much time at his keyboard that he is unable to detect what is happening around him.

Tildesley, though, seems out of line with another boffin, this one Dr Clive Dix, former chairman of the UK's vaccine taskforce. He takes the view that we've already reached the stage when Covid should be treated as endemic, similar to flu. And when the booster campaign has run its course, he says, mass-vaccination should end.

"We need to analyse whether we use the current booster campaign to ensure the vulnerable are protected, if this is seen to be necessary", he adds, arguing that ministers should urgently back research into Covid immunity beyond antibodies to include B-cells and T-cells (white blood cells).

The new approach, Dix believes, should be to create vaccines for vulnerable people specific to Covid variants. In his view: "We now need to manage disease, not virus spread. So stopping progression to severe disease in vulnerable groups is the future objective".

With that, it seems, NHS bureaucrat extraordinaire, Chris Hopson, has realised that the game is up. He is allowed an authored piece for today's Observer headed: "It's time to transform the NHS – the pressures of Covid have left no doubt", with the sub-heading admitting that: "The pandemic has exposed the fact that Britain's healthcare system does not have sufficient capacity".

This goes halfway towards the point I was making last Thursday, that we were not seeing a Covid crisis, per se, so much as an administrative crisis in the NHS – largely brought about by the increased testing and the current self-isolation policy.

Supporting his producer-led organisation, though, Hopson, takes the opportunity to complain that, after a decade of the deepest financial squeeze in NHS history, the health and care frontline is going to be stretched perilously thin in places over the next three weeks.

But he nevertheless argues that, thanks to our national structure, the NHS can deliver in ways many other national health systems can't, having on 18 January 2021 coped with 40,000 Covid patients in hospital on the same day.

We can, he says, create "insurance policy" super-surge capacity across the country at incredible pace, with the first eight hubs now in place and he also boasts of creating "virtual wards", using new technology to monitor less seriously ill patients remotely, only bringing them into hospital when needed.

Yet, what he doesn't address anywhere is the fact that, over the past two years the NHS has been transformed largely into a national Covid service, building up unsatisfied demand which translates into a waiting list of millions and, doubtless, increased mortality arising from undiagnosed and untreated non-Covid ailments.

While the NHS has to keep running to the Army for assistance, his memory probably doesn't run to recalling that, up to 1968 when it was disbanded, we had the Civil Defence Corps which, at its height, boasted 330,000 personnel, mostly volunteers, complete with its integral National Hospital Service Reserve (stand down parade pictured).

Although under the authority of the Home Office, with a centralised administrative establishment, the corps was administered locally by Corps Authorities at county level, each division equipped with its own fleet of ambulances, field hospitals and trained staff capable of taking over from the established services in the event of nuclear attack or other major emergency.

I have already written about the idea of designing and maintaining public buildings, such as sports halls, which can be quickly converted into "fever hospitals" when the need arises, and also suggested ways in which staffing could be supplemented.

With the equivalent of a civilian territorial army – perhaps linking with an expanded St John's Ambulance Brigade – we could with a little imagination, provide a surge capability for the NHS, allowing it to deal with its normal medical load while the reserve services coped with the overload – not forgetting that this government failed to make effective use of already existing local authority services.

Nothing Hopson writes, suggests that he has even begun to understand the issues arising from the Covid epidemic. Rather, he wants a "fully funded, workforce plan" to attract and retain an extra million health and care staff, a "national transformation programme that embeds modern technology, 21st century medicine, integrated care closer to home and much greater emphasis on prevention at the heart of our health and care system".

And when "son of Covid" comes calling, the NHS will be just as unprepared for it as it was when this epidemic struck, lacking as it does the core capacity for dealing with infectious disease epidemics within the existing structure, while also delivering routine health care.

That then leaves us with the Sunday Telegraph which warns, "Britain faces surgeon shortage, as cancelled operations leave graduates under-qualified", retailing that: "More than one million elective operations in which trainees would have gained vital experience have been ‘lost’ to the Covid pandemic".

When the disease does finally disappear from daily public consciousness, therefore – which cannot be long now - it will still cast a long shadow, while we can have no expectations that the authorities will develop any better capabilities for dealing with the next epidemic than they had for this one.

Also published on Turbulent Times.

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