Are we returning to normality at last?

THE DEMANDS, op-ed commentary and warnings that the UK Government should be ready to impose a lockdown this winter are unrelenting. Defending past decisions to introduce three lockdowns and persist with non-medical interventions or restrictions without any evidence base to support their enforcement is still commonplace.

And yet the public can see what is happening all around us – we are slowly returning to normality, although the ramifications of the lockdowns are still reverberating around us.

Possibly the biggest unspoken nod to normalcy was the conduct of The Queue for the Lying in State of the late Queen Elizabeth and her subsequent funeral, broadcast to an estimated 37.5 million in the UK and 4 billion world-wide.  There was no social distancing, no evidence of temporary screens and masks were unusual, if visible at all. People were mixing, conversing with and hugging complete strangers.

Then, just this past weekend, came another acknowledgement of us returning to old ways – the latest series of Strictly Come Dancing returned to our screens on Friday and Saturday and there was a full live audience for the first time in two years – again with no distancing. The screens between judges were also gone and it seemed like a return to the good times of the past.

The next day I went to my local Tesco and it too had taken down all but a few till screens, but customer services and the tobacco section were entirely open. The same at my local Co-op and for practically all small shops too. Likewise, we have returned to the normal sporting calendar for weeks now, even for the largest public gatherings of football, rugby, cricket or horse racing – while entertainment and hospitality venues have also been operating under normal arrangements for months now.

The subliminal messaging of the change in restrictions surely sinks in – so when we hear calls for restrictions to be ready for a quick response to any up-tick in Covid cases, it does not sit easily with the everyday experience. It would be a lurch to go back – and one I believe that would not be popular nor as easily accepted as on previous occasions.

And there will be up-ticks in Covid cases, that is certain. Today’s figures released by ONS showed an increase of those in hospital with Covid admissions, the highest since 19 August. While the number of cases outside hospitals and care homes stands at 766,500 for the week to 14 September. But people I speak to want to avoid lockdowns and see no sense in them being brought back – preferring we treat Covid like we treat the flu, even a bad flu. 

The latest messaging being propagated is that we face a “twindemic” this Christmas – it’s all part of the campaign for us to take the separate vaccines for Covid and Flu this winter. I’ve already had my text offering me the vaccines from my medical practice. At the same time warnings are being issued of an “Autumn Wave” of Covid. Some people just cannot break their addiction to fearmongering.

Visiting the ONS online statistics and tweeting the latest figures on the occasion of any move upwards appears to have become a new sport – or is it trolling of lockdown sceptics?! I never see these people tweeting how the numbers have fallen, when they do.

The important measure is, however, deaths – where the trend is still down. Deaths involving COVID-19 in the week ending 16 September accounted for 347 (2.9%) of all deaths in the UK; a decrease from 414 (3.4%) in the previous week.

It may not stay that way, a new strain could change the dynamics and this is what the lockdown advocates argue to be ready for. But do we really want to go through all of what we learned from the last three lockdowns again? There is now a greater realisation of just how much pressure the NHS has been put under by the repeated postponement of treatments and the failure to provide the help that led to many unnecessary deaths. New stories continue to surface.

One such example came today (Thursday 29th) when the BBC reported how 26-year-old David Nash died from an ear infection despite four phone calls to four different clinicians in the same practice over three weeks in the autumn of 2020 – but the condition was never diagnosed and he was never offered an in-person appointment. It’s distressing listening to the audio tapes obtained by the BBC (22.05 minutes into the news broadcast), where the clinicians treated each call as if it was the first even though he was eventually passing blood. He died within two days after the last call. 

An investigation by NHS England found, “While he could have been seen face to face at any point there was a clinical rationale to not seeing him until the fourth call”, but judged the fourth call was not satisfactory and that “a face-to-face consultation should have been organised.” An inquest is scheduled for the New Year – the very sad case of David Nash will not be the only such tragedy. The full report is on BBC Newsnighttonight (Thursday 29 10.30pm).

The impact of lockdowns is still being felt, not least the inflation caused by disruption to supply chains and expansion of the money supply to fund the furlough and other support schemes – and in the public services trying to catch-up with their backlog of work. The health impacts remain massive. The economy is still hurting and yesterday we learned JD Wetherspoon is to sell thirty-two pubs due to rising food and energy costs and increased wages required to attract staff. 

We are set to see more ramifications over the coming weeks and the pressures on the NHS rise – as they always do at this time of year. Our politicians need to resist the temptation to swing towards restrictions in the belief they will prevent the spread of viruses – they will not save the NHS but simply store up greater problems for next year while wrecking an already ravaged economy and doing more untold damage to the mental health of the country. 

We need to avoid creating a new cycle – and this Winter is the time to do it.

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Brian Monteith is a former member of the Scottish and European Parliaments and managing editor of the Recovery blog.