Comment

Matt Hancock may be ready to 'live with the virus' - but is Britain?

The Government's apparent confidence that normality will resume in 2021 overlooks a major shift in public attitudes to infectious disease

Like a damp caravan holiday in Wales, Matt Hancock’s ‘great British summer’ is suddenly looking a little less dazzling. Nevertheless, the health secretary is still prepared to stick his neck out and say that by the end of the year Covid 19 will have been reduced to a “disease we can live with, like flu”.

Don’t count on it, though. I’m not booking my Christmas party any more than I am my summer holiday, not when the miserablists of SAGE seem to be trying to outdo each other in telling us how many decades it will be before life can return to normal. Not for the first time, Professor John Edmunds of the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine trumps the field by telling us we will be wearing face masks ‘forever’.

I have every confidence that Mr Hancock will be proved right in predicting that by the end of the year covid 19 will be a disease that wreaks no more harm on the UK population than does seasonal flu. After all, by then we should have administered the vast majority of the adult population with vaccines that have an efficacy rate – for preventing symptomatic illness -- of between 70 and 95 percent.

When it comes to preventing serious cases, the vaccines appear to be even more effective. It doesn’t take too much optimism to envisage a situation where covid is killing fewer people than the 5000 – 20,000 Britons annually who are claimed by flu.

But that overlooks a very significant shift in attitudes towards infectious disease, certainly on the part of SAGE scientists, but also among a large part of the public. We have become so conditioned to agonising over daily covid statistics that it is hard to imagine life carrying on as normal through a future winter without anyone much noticing or worrying about 20,000 deaths from infectious disease.

Even were covid to disappear entirely, thousands of flu deaths could start to seem unacceptable in many people’s eyes. Now that lockdowns and social distancing have been established as policy options there will be immense pressure on the government to use them in bad flu seasons, possibly every winter.

No-one demonstrates this change in attitudes so much as Professor Edmunds. Last March he was saying of covid: “The only way to stop this disease is indeed to achieve herd immunity”. He accepted the inevitability of significant numbers dying, and the futility of trying to halt the epidemic through endless restrictions on our everyday lives. Now, even with seemingly effective vaccines, no fall in Covid cases and deaths would appear steep enough to convince him that normal life can resume.

It isn’t just Edmunds. Prior to March 2020, the government’s plan for a pandemic did not even entertain the possibility of lockdowns. Schools and workplaces were to remain open – just as they did during the Hong Kong flu pandemic of 1968-69. Illiberal measures simply weren’t on the public health menu, and they wouldn’t have gone down well if they had been – imagine, for example, the outrage and derision had Mrs Thatcher tried to ban sex outside marriage in response to HIV.

Yet somehow the pandemic has managed to shift opinion, possibly for good. Death has become less tolerable. That is why, Covid or no Covid, I fear we face a future in which all eyes will be on NHS admissions statistics – and governments will not hesitate to take away our freedoms at whim.