Two GPs share their views on whether Covid restrictions should have been recently removed
Yes, it’s time to move on
Dr Jonathan Heatley argues that society is now better off focusing on other matters
The decision to end all Covid restrictions wasn’t to be taken lightly in light of the general anxiety that the pandemic has posed – not only here, but around the world.
It’s been a long, arduous two years, and most people I know are bored with it and now want to get on with their lives. The numbers show that the pandemic in England is past its peak, and we’re now heading into an endemic scenario, so we feel that this is the right time.
The Omicron variant is more infectious, but not the deadly variant that everyone dreaded. There were some dire predictions from modelling groups, but the Government decided that they were too pessimistic and ended restrictions. There hasn’t been a worsening rate of infection or hospitalisation as was predicted.
The damage done to the economy and to the younger generation has been huge, and the NHS is facing an unprecedented backlog of work – with an estimated six million people waiting for treatment. England is a world leader with vaccine production and take-up, and we can all be rightly proud of this national effort.
Because we followed the science and tempered it with common sense, we’ve come through the pandemic reasonably well considering our ageing population and crowded country. I don’t think that the Zero Covid scenario is attainable, and many countries that have tried to go down this route are now steeped in Covid outbreaks.
The economic damage is well-known, but due to massive borrowing to fund furlough and the medical measures, we’re now deeply in debt. Perhaps the only saving grace is that the entire Western world is similarly affected. We had the COP26 summit to tackle global warming last autumn, and have the Russian war on Ukraine.
We urgently need to get the economy functioning again, and the ending of Covid restrictions is a prerequisite. The difficulties last winter with the rules on isolating if in contact with a possible case brought businesses, including some GP surgeries, to their knees. This year, about a third of our staff have had Covid, despite everyone being vaccinated, and most only had symptoms like a heavy cold.
Our experience as frontline GPs is that the remaining Covid issues are dwarfed by the mental health problems it all brings. The younger generation has been hit particularly badly, with education severely disrupted and chaos in the exam system. Mental health in those aged under 18 has long been a Cinderella service, and because of a spate of tragic suicides, there have had to be special measures in my locality. The sooner we can get our children back to schools that are functioning normally without restrictions and masks, the better for the children’s development.
It’s time to move on.
Dr Jonathan Heatley is a GP partner in West Sussex
No, it’s against our Hippocratic Oath
Dr Vivian Wilkinson says that this will affect the most vulnerable
It’s not clinically safe to lift all Covid restrictions, including the end of free testing. Our Government wants to lead the rest of the world in ‘living with Covid’, and undoubtedly the vaccination programme has successfully reduced morbidity and mortality. But are we forgetting those who cannot be vaccinated? They are, after all, at higher risk now when nobody is taking precautions. They must make the fateful decisions of staying home to shield, or going out and risking catching Covid – and possibly dying.
We’ve all been starved of human touch for the past two years, and nobody likes being told what to do. But returning to normal doesn’t have to involve sacrificing all precautions. Wearing face masks, maintaining social distances in public places and adopting precautions like test-checks for mass gathering – while currently unpopular – shouldn’t be perceived as an act of control. These measures keep this virus under control and protect the unvaccinated. Studies have shown that they greatly decrease the transmission of other respiratory viruses too, not only Covid.
Returning to ‘business as usual’ shouldn’t involve taking away free testing. Lifting all restrictions will eventually increase the rate of transmission. Our post-vaccination immunity lasts about six months. That means that we’ll now be dependent upon regular boosters, which will put strain on our already overstretched NHS carrying out these pan-population vaccinations.
On a professional level, lifting restrictions doesn’t make sense when Covid rates are still high.
In England, 497,415 new cases were identified in the most recent week of data.
This is dangerous for those who cannot be vaccinated, like those who are severely anaphylactic to the vaccinations, or even children under five or those who make an informed decision not to be vaccinated. We cannot forget that some are clinically vulnerable or immunocompromised and who may not mount a proper immune response, even if vaccinated. They are now exposed to the risk more than ever.
Let’s not forget our Hippocratic Oath: ‘I will prevent disease whenever I can, for prevention is preferable to cure’. We are failing the public by letting this happen when the statistics, studies and scientific evidence don’t support eliminating all of the restrictions.
Simple measures like wearing face masks, sanitising hands and keeping some social distance can become part of our normal life. That is how we’ll live with the virus and get ahead of it – and it’s a small price to pay if we can keep everyone, especially the more vulnerable, a little safer.
Dr Vivian Wilkinson is a GP partner in Manchester