COVID-19: Live and let live?
I can still remember how if felt in March 2020, when the UK went into lock down. It had been on the cards for some weeks as we watched the numbers of cases rising and hospitals and ITUs being swamped. There were distressing images from abroad of people in hospital gasping for breath. Images from Bergamo, Italy, were particularly hard to watch as this population took a massive hit. Hospitals and staff were overwhelmed. How could it be that a virus that for most of us, caused nothing more than a common cold was suddenly posing an existential threat to humanity?
We were faced with a new reality where we were to spend large amounts of time isolated from each other. What was this disease? How should we prevent transmission and protect ourselves and our loved ones? Life sort of stopped, except that it didn't in that we still needed to go shopping and work, as best we could. Emergency workers and other key workers had to keep the fundamental infrastructure and supply chains going. But how to protect them at work? We became all too familiar with social distancing, hand hygiene and wearing face coverings. Thanks to a massive get out of jail free (almost) card, the development of vaccines against COVID-19 and the roll-out to the population was a game changer in that many people could change their perception of risk of getting a COVID-19 infection. July 19th, 2021 was dubbed "freedom day" by the UK Government. Most restrictions were lifted in England, followed later by the other devolved administrations. Ironically, the Uk Prime Minister had to self-isolate on freedom day because of a COVID-19 infection. The Government acknowledged that cases could still rise to high levels, but the link between infection and serious illness had been broken. However, many vulnerable people worried about risks to them and coined the term "hermit day". The Government issued guidance about "living with COVID".
Back in 2021, the hope was that the combination of immunity from vaccination and from additional infections causing only minor to moderate severity illness would lead to a population level of immunity such that we could largely forget about COVID-19. This was called the reasonable best case scenario. However, the current reality is that we will probably be faced with repeated waves or surges of infection, maybe every three months. This is the central pessimistic scenario. Scientists have found the the new variants of the Omicron variant of COVID-19 are very good at evading existing immune defences. Even people who have been infected with one variant of Omicron can be re-infected with another variant. This means that living with COVID means living with repeated surges of infection.
Fortunately, the current surge of infection with the BA.5 variant now seems to be peaking and we can hope for a reduction in numbers of cases over the next month. Life has gone on. However, there has been a price to pay in terms of an increase in hospital admissions and reduced resilience of public services because of a shortage of personnel. Ambulance response times are reported to be at an all-time high in England. In addition, the number of people waiting more than one year for treatment to begin has risen to 331,623. Deaths associated with COVID-19 still occur across the age ranges and the number of people suffering with long-COVID is over 2 million.
What does this mean for policing? At any one time, we can expect police officers and staff to be infected by a variant of COVID-19. This will reduce numbers available for work putting pressure on people still at work. Between 5 - 10% will have persisting symptoms that will require appropriate welfare and HR support. Some infections will arise in connection with work, particularly during surges. This means that we have to re-double efforts to maintain COVID-secure workplaces. This is not easy in many police workplaces as the estate is inadequate to maintain social distancing. Ventilation of indoor spaces is being promoted as a supplement to vaccination. How effective this will be in police workplaces is questionable and so attention to population densities will be required, as well as the use of masks - IIR surgical masks to reduce transmission and FFP2 / FFP3 masks to protect personnel, particularly people who have vulnerabilities.
Perhaps the biggest challenge is COVID-19 fatigue. The declaration of freedom day was, in effect, a false dawn. We are tired of having to think about COVID-19 and would like to get on with our lives. When will it all be over? We are told that the end of a pandemic is more than just about disease rates (the medical end). We have to consider the political end (when we no longer worry about crises and can remove regulations) and a social end (when life returns to normal). The Government has tried to force a political end and seems reluctant to bring back any legal restrictions. Whether this is sustainable will depend on what happens in the autumn / winter, when we can expect another surge. It depend on the emergence of new variants and on the development of new vaccines that are more effective against the variants. Currently, a medical end is not in sight and this should mean that we cannot accept that we have reached a social end.