New health secretary Sajid Javid is expected to confirm that England’s long-awaited “freedom day”, marking the end of remaining coronavirus restrictions, will not happen until July 19. The decision to postpone the country’s reopening was originally announced by British Prime Minister Boris Johnson just days before the country was supposed to open in June, citing concern over a spike in case numbers driven by the Delta virus variant first identified in India.
Johnson described the delay as “a very difficult choice,” but reassured the public that it would save thousands of lives in the long run. The Delta variant is believed to be particularly infectious and potentially more severe, and is now estimated to make up more than 90 percent of all new cases in the UK.
The delay will come as a relief to the countless public health experts who warned against re-opening too soon and risking an exponential spread of the disease. The essential R number is now as high as 1.44 in the UK, and case rates are already rising in more local areas than at any point since January 2021, including across north-west England, London and Scotland.
“We’ve been discussing whether or not we’re going into a serious third wave,” explained Professor Sir David King, former chief scientific adviser to the government, ahead of the decision to delay the country’s complete reopening. “I don’t think we can possibly wait any longer— this is the evidence of another wave appearing.”
Even so, the delay comes as a crushing blow to the millions of individuals and businesses desperate to get back to normal life. To many, Johnson has repeatedly shifted the goal posts, first imploring the general public to stay home to protect the public health service from being overwhelmed, and then to wait until vulnerable groups had been vaccinated; after that, the population was begged to wait until over-50s had been offered the vaccine, and is now being reassured of enduring “one more heave” until the entire British population has had at least one jab.
For countless businesses, especially those in the nightlife sector, this last delay is one too many. According to an industry expert, one in four businesses in the night time economy will not survive longer than one month without additional government support; half of those will be shuttered in a fortnight.
“Night time economy businesses have waited patiently for their opportunity to open for over 15 months,” charged Michael Kill, CEO of industry representative NTIA, “distressed industries cannot continue to be held in limbo… any decision to delay without clarity on when they can open will leave us no other option but to challenge the Government.”
What the delay really shows, however, is that the British government never should have promoted the idea of a “freedom day” so intensively. The UK government’s messaging around the lockdown exit gave the impression that on June 21st, life in Britain would magically return to pre-pandemic days—something which public health experts, who have acknowledged for months that Covid-19 is unlikely to be eradicated but instead will become an endemic disease like the common flu.
The solution, then, is to learn to live with Covid-19 as one of the many health challenges of
modern life. As humans have done with previous pandemics, the key now is to minimize the effects of the pathogen as much as possible to avoid further surges that lead to economically devastating lockdowns; the last four pandemics morphed into endemic sources of disease within two years of emerging. While those pandemics were influenza pandemics with different pathogen patterns, there is no reason to believe humanity can’t also learn to live with this latest coronavirus.
This year, international public health priorities have centred around vaccinating entire populations to shelter them from the pandemic; encouragingly, millions have signed up for the highly effective jabs since late 2020. Still, this is an expensive route unavailable to many countries in the near term and a substantial body of people are opposed to receiving the vaccine at all, not to mention the groups who can’t be vaccinated due to medical conditions or severe allergic reactions.
Instead, developing and repurposing effective drugs which reduce the risk of complications for patients already infected with Covid-19 will prove essential to ensuring that future waves of the virus don’t cause a public health crisis akin to what populations and businesses have endured since early 2020. Fortunately, there are already a number of promising candidates.
Partner Therapeutics’ Leukine, already approved by medical regulators for a different disease, has been shown in multiple trials to help Covid-19 patients hospitalised with respiratory failure. One study, led by University Hospital Ghent, indicated that Leukine, also known as sargramostim, was able to stimulate specific immune cells that fight against Covid-19 while also restoring the lungs’ ability to take in oxygen.
The second randomized trial, conducted at 11 US hospitals, confirmed the results of the Belgian trials, finding that 84% of patients with severe Covid showed improved oxygenation when treated with inhaled Leukine, and that the treatment was safe and well tolerated. The drug is now undergoing trials across the US and Latin America for non-hospitalised Covid patients at high risk, in the hopes of lowering their chances of severe disease and hospitalisation.
At the same time, biotechnology company Cocrystal Pharma has just announced encouraging results suggesting that their Covid-19 3CL protease inhibitor could work against Covid-19, including against the UK “alpha” variant and the South African “beta” variant. In fact, the protease inhibitor showed “excellent antiviral activity” against both variants, surpassing the activity observed with the original Covid-19 strain identified in Wuhan.
It’s high time authorities, and the general public, accepted that Covid-19 may always be with us. Moreover, this enduring focus on freedom day festivities and a futile desire for “zero-Covid” only clouds the truly good news about this virus: by utilising a full arsenal of tools, from vaccines to treatments to public health measures like mask-wearing under certain circumstances, we can, and will, make sure Covid-19 no longer controls our lives and destroys our economies.