York Press column – Finally we are learning to live with covid
January 14, 2022
As we move through the cold days and early evenings, we have the significant consolation that the government has so far resisted the urge to again suspend normal life through lockdown.
After the cruel separations of last December, it was a relief to enjoy a fairly normal Christmas and New Year, with Ministers now trusting a vaccinated and boosted public to make responsible decisions to protect their loved ones.
Omicron remains a very serious threat to the vulnerable and the unvaccinated, and an enormous challenge for York’s NHS, which we must all support by following the targeted covid measures now in force. Nevertheless, the fact the major concern now is not that omicron will cause a wave of deaths, but rather that by its infectiousness it risks reducing NHS capacity through staff absence, is a sign of how far we have moved away from the worst-case scenarios, with this new variant likely to become a manageable obstacle, albeit a very considerable one.
I therefore think the government made the right call last week to stick with current Plan B measures rather than bring in harsher rules, just as it made the right call not to impose new restrictions between Christmas and New Year. There are already signs that omicron may have peaked in London without a serious rise in deaths, a hopeful indication that our region will also be able to safely get through this variant on the basis of boosters and conscientious individual behaviour.
I am glad to have contributed to encouraging Ministers to use the protection of the vaccine shield to strike a better balance between the need to defeat covid and the need to keep normal life going, by voting against ‘vaccine passports’ and compulsory frontline NHS worker vaccination in December. This seems to have led to a sustained shift in government policy away from knee-jerk restrictions. Having been very concerned Ministers were not sufficiently considering the damage covid rules cause to York livelihoods and family life, I now have growing confidence decisions are being made based on evidence, not catastrophic predictions, and the harm done by lockdowns properly assessed against the virus risk.
In place of new repressive regulations, I welcome the fact the government is instead putting in place targeted support measures to allow society to continue functioning as we face omicron, such as the special daily lateral flow testing provision for 100,000 workers in critical sectors for 5 weeks, which should help limit the disruption to supply chains, transport, and energy generation.
I am also reassured my lobbying for a safe return to normal international travel has paid off, with last week’s decision to replace the pre-departure test for returning UK travellers with a lateral flow test after arrival. This rule harmed York families and our many local travel businesses, discouraging trips by those understandably anxious at the risk of being stranded overseas and the added expense of testing. Again, it is good we are shifting to a system that allows normal activity to continue safely, rather than preventing that activity.
However, we are only able to calmly resist omicron because of the ongoing reinforcement of our city’s vaccine shield. At time of writing, nearly 114,000 York residents have been boosted, with figures from City of York Council suggesting over 65% of the eligible population have had the third injection, putting the city ahead of the national average of 61%.
I am also responding to concerns from some residents that they have struggled to access lateral flow tests. Perversely, this is almost a good sign inasmuch as it indicates the massive public demand for testing as our community acts responsibly. However, I know how frustrating such experiences will be and am looking to see how the situation can be improved.
Overall availability is huge, with our country testing 4 times as many people as Germany, and twice as many as France. Rapid steps are increasing capacity enormously, with lateral flow supply being tripled from 100 to 300 million per month, and PCR testing dialled up from 530,000 to 700,000 per day in December. I will continue working in this and other areas to ensure our city can enjoy a normal, but safe, New Year.