Thursday, 23 December 2021

2021 Christmas Message

This week there was an extended Cabinet meeting to consider the latest evidence on the Omicron variant of Covid and assess whether further restrictions are needed.  The government has decided not to introduce any further restrictions at this stage but to keep the matter under close review.

There are times when you have to make big decisions on issues but with very limited evidence and the current situation reflects just that.  We know that the new variant is spreading very quickly but we always predicted that it would so that is not really a surprise and is in line with expectations.  The key doubts are around the severity of symptoms and the extent to which the vaccines that we have all had will provide protection.

The Omicron Variant was first discovered in South Africa and they are judged to be about 2 to 3 weeks ahead of us.  Infections also grew incredibly fast but are now starting to fall quite quickly which is encouraging.  There is also some evidence that the symptoms are milder than previous variants with those who do end up in hospital typically staying for 3 or 4 days rather than the average of 10 days for previous variants.  It is very hard to estimate the number of daily hospitalisations we might have and models range from a few hundred to many thousands per day, but the best estimate is that it might get as high as 3000 per day which is about 25 per cent lower than the peak earlier this year.  The 4000 per day admissions earlier this year put pressure on the NHS but was manageable.

The key unknown factor is the extent to which the vaccines we have to reduce the severity of symptoms.  The big drive for people to get their booster jab is for the very good reason that the early evidence suggests that having a booster significantly reduces the chances of infection, perhaps getting up to an 80 per cent reduction. Almost all of the older, more vulnerable cohorts and many others have now had their booster jab and those who have not yet got round to it should try because it is crucial to our efforts.  The double vaccinations will provide some protection against symptoms but limited protection against infection and uncertainty about the extent to which a double jab will reduce the severity of symptoms is where the doubt lies and the risk exists.

We have had two years now of using emergency powers to impose exceptional and highly illiberal restrictions on people’s everyday lives: telling them where they can meet, how many people they can meet, whether they can attend band practice or play sport or go to work.  You can’t maintain those sorts of extraordinary powers indefinitely which is why the government is trying to chart a different course this time, being honest about the risks we face, unable to rule out the possibility of taking further legal restrictions but being deeply reluctant to do so and instead relying on individuals and families to exercise their own judgement and manage their own risk and try to reduce their exposure in their own way.  There is evidence that they are doing just that which makes the impact of further legal restrictions more doubtful.

Despite the uncertainty we face, Christmas must be is a time for hope and optimism. It is an opportunity to speak to family members and spend time with friends without the frequent pressures of work or normal life. I am pleased that Christmas will be proceeding as normal this year.  The social distancing needed to slow the spread of Covid-19 over the last couple of years has made people value friendships and family connections and realise the importance of these relationships. Given the frantic pace of life in the modern world, we had perhaps lost sight of this as a society at times.  While many may be finding it difficult this Christmas, we must all try to make an effort to maintain the important links to those most important in our lives and continue to look out for one another.

I wish you all a very merry and happy Christmas!

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