SIR JOHN BELL: We cannot live in terror cut off from the world

We cannot live in terror cut off from the world. We MUST get Britain open again, writes Professor SIR JOHN BELL, Regius Chair of Medicine at Oxford University

Britain urgently needs to shift its mindset from a terror of the Covid-19 virus to focus on the damage already done to our economy – and the worse that is yet to come.

The spike in infections reported in the past few days was to be expected as life slowly returns to our streets and workplaces.

They are concerning and, yes, we must be prepared for a second wave of Covid-19 while working hard to contain localised outbreaks to prevent it.

We must not, however, let this hamper our efforts to return to normality.

Much of the increase in infections is among the young, who tend to experience moderate or no symptoms. Crucially, we have not yet seen a jump in hospital admissions or deaths.

The spike in infections reported in the past few days was to be expected as life slowly returns to our streets and workplaces. Pictured: commuters at Waterloo Station in London return to work after the summer holidays

As summer turns to autumn, cases will continue to rise and clearly, university towns face potential dangers as thousands of new students start the next phase of their education and others resume their studies.

But how good it will be to see them back in the libraries and laboratories – just as it was magnificent to see our children returning to school last week.

Now we need to get more people back on public transport, and into offices, back into coffee shops and sandwich bars and shopping malls.

We need to claim back our old lives – lives in which we took for granted trips to the cinema, to the theatre and to concert halls.

And, of course, we need to get our hospitals back firing on all cylinders, detecting and treating the cancers and cardiac diseases that did not go away just because Covid-19 was dominating the news.

Tens of thousands of people have missed out on tests and treatments and we must remedy that as best we can.

Much of the increase in infections is among the young, who tend to experience moderate or no symptoms. Crucially, we have not yet seen a jump in hospital admissions or deaths. Pictured: a man wearing a face mask and gloves passes a recently re-opened Pret-A-Manger shop in London

This is why I unambiguously support the Daily Mail’s campaign to get Britain’s economy rolling – and especially to get airports open again.

And, as the Mail reports today, at last the Government seems to be listening, with plans to slash existing quarantine rules and begin the introduction of a two-test system. 

That is only right. We cannot thrive, we cannot live our lives in any decent enriching way, if we remain cut off from the world.

Of course, international travel brings increased risk of infection. The Office for National Statistics shows the risk of disease in those who travel is about three times that of those who don’t (0.17 per cent vs 0.05 per cent).

So we must be vigilant as we think our way through to practical solutions. 

Airport testing provides a screen to identify infected people on arrival, with a second test five days later for those who initially test negative.

Beyond testing at airports, there are grounds for further optimism on population testing and our progress in developing a vaccine – both of which are crucial in enabling us to live and prosper with this virus.

Britain has one of the largest testing capacities per capita, but we still need significantly more for two distinct purposes.

First, it is crucial that we are able to diagnose Covid-19 accurately in potentially sick patients, health workers, those in care homes and other vulnerable populations.

For this, the highly sensitive PCR test is the gold standard. The Government’s SAGE committee suggests that using this form of testing on 10 per cent of the population at highest risk could reduce the R number – the reproduction rate of the virus which needs to be below 1 – by a startling 0.4. 

More broadly, how do we best give people the confidence to go to work, to the cinema, go shopping, travel abroad or attend school and university?

We will need tests that are easier to use but less sensitive, and designed to measure whether or not an individual carries a high viral load and is therefore likely to spread the disease to others.  

Those with high levels of virus will need to isolate. Those with very low levels of virus are less likely to spread the disease and as a result pose little threat.

In my work I move between lecture halls, laboratories, and to Whitehall and Westminster. 

I have never shown any Covid-19 symptoms, but because of the nature of my work, I am tested three times a week. Regular testing needs to become the norm for most of the population – and I have no doubt it will. 

We will need tests that are easier to use but less sensitive, and designed to measure whether or not an individual carries a high viral load and is therefore likely to spread the disease to others. Pictured: Heathrow T2’s new cover testing facility

Swabbing of the nose and back of the throat is uncomfortable, but these types of Covid-19 tests will soon be a thing of the past. 

We hope that new consumer tests now being developed, known as Lateral Flow and LAMP tests, can be done at home and give results in minutes – as quick and easy to use as pregnancy tests and, once licensed, available from pharmacies or on Amazon for a few pounds.

These tests are not entirely fool-proof, but they should be good enough to spot potential super-spreaders.

We cannot achieve absolute perfection and safety with any test regime, but regular testing will make managing the infection rate much easier – and restore confidence.

There is also good news on vaccine development. There are now 10,000 people in the UK who have had one or two double doses of a vaccine under development in Oxford, and a further 8,000 are being vaccinated in Brazil, a country which has one of the highest rates of infection.

The outlook is promising, and I believe the trial will be satisfactorily concluded in the next few months.

If the results are positive, there will be a supply of the vaccine available to start treating vulnerable groups once regulatory approval occurs. Indeed, it is quite possible we will get the green light for manufacture within six weeks.

This would be the ultimate game changer. But it will take time to vaccinate larger populations, whole cities for example, so we need flexible testing in place too.

Nor should we forget how much more we now know about Covid-19 and how to treat it. In the early days we over-treated patients, and put too many of them on oxygen and ventilators.

A discovery by the Oxford team that the cheap, widely available steroid, dexamethasone, reduces Covid mortality rates by 30 per cent was a huge advance, and will end up saving an estimated 1.3 million lives worldwide.

We have to remove or reduce fear of the virus so we can focus on the other essential parts of our recovery from the pandemic.

Above all, we must avoid another national lockdown and get the economy back on track and fast.

After all, how else will we pay for the NHS, and for the university and hospital laboratories where the scientific fightback against Covid is being waged?

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