Monday briefing: What ‘living with Covid’ might look like
In today’s newsletter: With case numbers on the rise in the UK, Nimo Omer looks at what shape our future relationship with the virus could take
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Good morning. At this point, most of us – 7 in 10 in the UK – have had Covid-19. Many have had it multiple times. And there’s a reason everyone seems to be catching it again in the UK: since April there has been no legal requirement to self-isolate, testing is no longer free and a lot of time has passed since most have had their booster, meaning that immunity has started to wane.
Measures to mitigate the spread of infection are no longer in place, and we can see the results: case rates are on the rise – and with new sub variants emerging, there are fears that another wave may be coming.
In today’s newsletter, I’ll be taking a look at whether a future of constant Covid reinfection is an inconvenience, or something more dangerous. That’ll be right after the headlines.
Five big stories
French elections | Emmanuel Macron’s centrist grouping has lost its absolute majority in the French parliament, amid gains by a new left alliance and a historic surge by the far right, projected results said.
Rail strikes | The government is facing growing anger over its refusal to join last-ditch talks to avert the biggest rail strike for three decades, with millions of people facing a week of cancelled trains and union leaders saying industrial action could spread.
Ukraine | Western leaders have said the war in Ukraine could last for years and will require long-term military support. Boris Johnson said Ukraine’s allies “need to steel ourselves for a long war” as Russia brought forward reserve forces as it battled to capture the city of Sievierodonetsk.
Brazil | Police investigating the murder of the British journalist Dom Phillips and indigenous advocate Bruno Pereira have identified five more people connected with the killings, bringing the number of suspects in the crime to eight.
Athletics | Dame Kelly Holmes has announced that she is gay, saying she “needed to do this now, for me”. The double Olympic champion said she realised her sexuality at the age of 17.
In depth: The future of the coronavirus pandemic
At the start of the pandemic, the idea of getting reinfected with Covid was not on anyone’s mind. But by April 2022, England had recorded over 890,000 reinfections, crushing any hopes of gradual herd immunity. A study published by Imperial College London last December found that the Omicron variant was five times more likely to reinfect people than Delta – meaning that reinfections will be relatively common now that Omicron, in its various forms, is the dominant variant in the UK. So what might the consequences of that be?
When is the next wave?
Covid-19 may eventually become a more seasonal virus, but epidemiologists and infectious disease experts have said that isn’t the case yet. With the harshest waves so far in the winter, it would be understandable to think that in the summer months infections are unlikely. But Covid-19 is not the same as it was in 2020: it has evolved. Real seasonality may take a few more years, which is why we are seeing an increase in infection rates – spurred on by the Omicron BA.4 and BA.5 subvariants – despite the fact that it is the middle of June.
Experts are warning that we are on the precipice of a new wave – the third of 2022 alone. Virologist Dr Stephen Griffin, quoted in Linda Geddes’ piece on the new subvariants last week, said that the idea that the virus is now something akin to the common cold was implausible: “It clearly isn’t, and there’s no pressure on it to do that, really.”
Another wave may be a case of when, not if, but the real concern would be the scale and severity of infections. Vaccines and antiviral treatments have helped keep hospitalisation figures down, but if that were to change, the NHS will face a real challenge: NHS England’s chief executive warned last week that frontline services are currently facing a situation “as challenging as any winter before the pandemic” because of staff shortages and inadequate provision of social care meaning patients cannot be discharged. There are already 6.5 million on waiting lists for treatment.
What about long Covid?
The ubiquity of reinfection can make it seem like catching Covid-19 is no big deal – and a new report by King’s College London could reinforce this idea. The study found that among Delta cases, 10.8% of people experienced long Covid – with Omicron that number was less than half, at 4.5%.
However, the researchers also pointed out that this data does not indicate that this will be the case for future variants. They note that one in 23 people who catch Covid-19 has symptoms for more than the standard maximum of four weeks – which is a lot of people. Long Covid isn’t fully understood yet, but two million people in the UK are thought to be living with its debilitating effects. (Do listen to this Today in Focus episode about what it’s like.) Symptoms reported by sufferers include continued breathing difficulties, extreme tiredness and fatigue, brain fog, and joint pain, making it difficult to get on with life. Accepting continual reinfection may mean exposing more people to these kinds of medium to long term health consequences, which we still know so little about.
What about immunocompromised people?
In late May, the Welsh government joined the rest of the UK in ditching restrictions. The next phase would be to “learn to live safely alongside coronavirus”. The question is how the 500,000 immunocompromised and immunosuppressed people in the UK are supposed to do that without ongoing measures –such as mask mandates and continuing comprehensive vaccination programmes.
Without those protections, exposure to Covid can prove life threatening for some people. Avoiding the disease in a country, and a world, that is determined to get back to pre-pandemic times, is not only dangerous for them, but poses a new threat altogether: a swiftly deteriorating quality of life and exclusion from the outside world. Back in February, Frances Ryan wrote that a new stance of “personal responsibility mixed with the good old blitz spirit” without more targeted help for the clinically vulnerable would write them off as “collateral damage”.
The biggest threat of all is a more dangerous new variant that current vaccines are even less effective against. And while most experts now believe zero Covid is a pipe dream, allowing coronavirus to run rampant increases the likelihood of its evolution.
Moreover, the emerging new subvariants are reportedly more resistant to the existing vaccines than the original version of Omicron. And while vaccine manufacturers are trying to create new iterations of them, it looks like the clinical trials can’t keep up with the ever-mutating virus.
Even then, there is the issue of eligibility: the autumn boosters will only be for more vulnerable adults and frontline social care and health workers. Is there any appetite for another universal vaccine drive from the government?
Covid may eventually become the equivalent of a cold. But we don’t know how long that will take – and the human price we will pay to get there.
What else we’ve been reading
Carole Cadwalladr wrote for the Observer about her vindication in the libel case brought against her by Brexit campaigner Arron Banks. “This litigation has felt as if it was aimed at trying to crush me,” she writes, setting out the extraordinary legal challenges she faced. “What this case proves is that no journalist is safe.” Archie
In this heartwarming piece, Donna Ferguson talks to Marvyn Harrison, a black father who was finding parenthood particularly difficult. But after admitting that he was struggling to other black fathers, Harrison found a community, that eventually turned into a movement. Nimo
Shaun Walker’s interview with Ukraine’s first lady Olena Zelenska for Saturday magazine is a remarkable insight into the “parallel reality” of an invasion she never imagined possible. “I couldn’t believe it would happen,” she says. “I didn’t even have my passport ready.” Archie
What’s it like to wake up and realise that you are a viral meme? Ashifa Kassam found out by talking to Josep Maria García, the man who became the face of the ‘Worst Person You Know’ meme. Nimo
Imogen West-Knights reflects on the difficulties of bill-splitting, and the app which is meant to fix the problem, Splitwise. The limit on its usefulness, she writes, is that “it fails to take into account the inviolable truth that people always find new ways to be assholes.”. Archie
Swimming | Swimming’s governing body, Fina, voted to restrict the participation of transgender athletes in elite women’s competitions. Fina said transgender women must establish that they “have not experienced any part of male puberty” to be eligible to race.
Golf | 27 year old Yorkshireman Matt Fitzpatrick has won the 2022 US open with a six under par, beating world No1 Scottie Scheffler and Will Zalatoris by one.
Formula One | Red Bull’s Max Verstappen won the Canadian Grand Prix after being pushed hard by Ferrari’s Carlos Sainz, who came second. Lewis Hamilton finished third for Mercedes. The result leaves Verstappen 49 points clear in the drivers’ championship.
The front pages
The Guardian leads today with “Anger as ministers refuse to join last-ditch effort to halt rail strikes”. “Rail union threat to strike for six months” says the Telegraph, while the Times has “Teachers and doctors threaten to join strikes”. The Mirror says “Summer of discontent – Now teachers and nurses join pay fight”. In the Daily Mail it’s “Summer strikes plague spreads”. The Express hopes that “Voters won’t forgive rail strike betrayal” which is what it calls Labour’s “failure to condemn” the action. The i has “Rail strikes ‘to carry on until the autumn’” as it says the RMT union general secretary has told people to expect a “long fight” with Network Rail. The Metro’s splash headline is “Network derailed” and the top story in the Financial Times is “City bosses warn UK is ill-equipped to deal with severe economic shock”.
Today in Focus
Walking through a war zone: Igor and Zhu-Zhu’s incredible journey
When the bombardment of Mariupol became unbearable, Igor Pedin set off with his dog Zhu-Zhu to find safety. Daniel Boffey tells his incredible story
Cartoon of the day | Rebecca Hendin
A bit of good news to remind you that the world’s not all bad
In the face of widespread supply chain issues and the cost of living crisis, the popular appetite for mending beloved items is growing. With the BBC’s Repair Shop attracting more than 7m viewers per episode, pop-up repair cafes thriving, and more and more fashion brands offering mending services, London’s Somerset House arts centre has just opened an exhibition devoted to reusing and restoring everything from ceramics to textiles to furniture.
Senior curator Claire Catterall started work on the exhibit in early 2020 after noticing “growing interest in the craft of repair” and a conviction that “mending felt relevant to all the conversations about sustainability.” She adds: “It ties in to the idea of care. I love the word ‘mend’: it talks of healing and the therapeutic mindfulness of fixing something.”
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