Words by ITV News Science Producer Philip Sime
“I must give the British people a very simple instruction - you must stay at home". They are the words of the prime minister two years ago and they marked the beginning of the Covid era, with the UK waking up the next day, March 24, 2020, to life under lockdown. The ensuing period brought pain, loss and a great deal of learning for the country’s health and scientific leaders, who came together in response to what is likely to be the biggest challenge of their careers. On the second anniversary of the first lockdown - as cases rise again and the spring booster campaign begins - ITV News speaks to experts about where we go from here.
Will we see more waves of Covid cases?
“We will see waves of this infection as we have before", says Dr Susan Hopkins, Chief Medical Advisor at the UK Health Security Agency.
It’s something we’re seeing at the moment, with a rising number of Covid cases in the community, she tells ITV News. “What we’re seeing is that these cases are predominantly the sister variant of Omicron, or BA.1, called BA.2", Dr Hopkins says.
“And what we know about this is that it’s more transmissible than the previous variants that have gone before but the good news is that it’s no more severe and it’s not evading the vaccine or immune responses any more than BA.1 did.” She says the rising number of cases is likely a combination of this increased transmissibility of BA.2, as well as the fact that people have relaxed their behaviour and increased their mixing.
'We will see waves of infections'
Will there be more lockdowns?
“Pretending the pandemic wasn’t there in 2020 was a tragedy. Pretending it’s gone away now would be a tragedy”, says Stephen Reicher, professor of psychology at the University of St Andrews and member of the Government’s Sage subcommittee on behavioural science. Professor Reicher says he hopes that we don’t have to return to lockdowns to control the virus, rather we need to ensure the right precautions are in place to prevent cases from getting out of control.
'Pretending the pandemic wasn’t there in 2020 was a tragedy'
“We have to restrict people when we fail to take other measures to protect people in an early and timely way", Professor Reicher tells ITV News. “It’s always been true that the lockdowns that have happened, happened months after there were calls for action. And the failure to heed those calls for action - for sensible protections - was what led the pandemic to run out of control", he says. Will we need more vaccines and boosters?
We are a “long way forward” from this time two years ago, says Adam Finn, professor of paediatrics at the University of Bristol and member of the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation. He says the vaccines have demonstrated their ability to reduce the risk of getting seriously ill and dying of Covid in those who receive them but they’re not perfect. “There are two things that they lack,” Professor Finn tells ITV News about the current crop of vaccines. “One is that the protection that they provide turns out to be somewhat temporary, particularly against mild disease, but even to some degree against severe disease so we’re having to boost people and give them repeated doses.”
Two years on from lockdown, where are we at with Covid vaccines?
He adds that the vaccines are not very effective at interrupting the transmission of the virus in the population at large. “They’re very good at protecting the people who get them but they’re not that great at stopping those people from passing the infection onto other people", he says. This week, the NHS in England launched its spring booster campaign for the over-75s and those at high risk from Covid. Asked whether the future will be one characterised by regular boosting, Professor Finn says he believes we will be offering booster doses for the “foreseeable future” but this could take place on an annual basis, similar to the flu vaccine. The immediate question, he says, is determining who should be receiving these booster doses. “We need to get the age range and the risk factors right so that we’re not giving vaccines to people who don’t need them but we are giving vaccines to the people that do", Professor Finn says. What impact has Covid had on GP surgeries?
Dr Farzana Hussain, a GP in east London, likens the need to quickly learn about Covid to condensing two years of medical school into three months. She says the effects of the pandemic will continue to make their presence felt. “I’m very concerned about the next few years because I think, as hard as we’re paddling, there’s a lot to catch up on and I think it will take years", Dr Hussain tells ITV News. “I’ve never diagnosed so much cancer since last November," she adds.
'It will take years' to catch up
Dr Hussain says she’s seen an increase in late cancer presentations and believes it’s because people didn’t want to trouble the NHS during the pandemic, or put themselves at risk of catching Covid. She also describes seeing a “tsunami of mental health problems", a deterioration in conditions such as diabetes and an increase in the number of falls among her elderly patients - she believes as they haven’t been as mobile as they previously were. What has the impact of coronavirus been on children?
“Our children and young people have been very significantly affected, not so much by Covid, but by our response to Covid," says Russell Viner, professor of child and adolescent health at University College London and member of Sage. He tells ITV News that it was right to protect the vulnerable and the elderly but that we overlooked the “indirect harms” to children and young people. “There’s no doubt that they have worse mental health, we have higher levels of obesity, child development is behind, there’s been lots of loss of education", says Professor Viner.
How has Covid impacted our younger generation?
He is calling for the Covid inquiry to recognise the “damage and harm” that’s been done to the youngest in society. “I am very concerned that the terms of reference for the UK official Covid inquiry barely touch on children and young people and schools", says Professor Viner. “We mustn't repeat the mistakes we made in the pandemic, which was to focus only on adults and little on children". He says that children are resilient and will catch up but fears we’ll see an increasing gap between the rich and the poor. Addressing this, Professor Viner says, will require a dramatic expansion of support for children's’ mental health in schools, increased training of school staff in child mental health and a return of investment in school nurses to support children. What impact has Covid had on the NHS?
“The story of Covid is one of incredible suffering and hardship and, of course, we lost many, many colleagues in the health service", says Matthew Taylor, Chief Executive of NHS Confederation. While Mr Taylor says he is optimistic about the medium-term future of the NHS and says it will benefit from pandemic innovations, such as digital consultations, he is calling for realism when it comes to the next few months.
What about the NHS?
“We have staff who are exhausted after two years, often they’ve gone through real trauma, working all round the clock, often in terrible circumstances where they weren’t able to give the help they wanted to the people in front of them", he says. “They emerge exhausted into a service with 100,000 vacancies, without a proper workforce plan and facing the enormous demands of trying to deal with the backlog over the last two years", he warns.