Last week we were greeted by the grim news of Omicron – a significant new variant of Covid-19, the first in several weeks. The Government rightly acted fast to take sensible precautions.
I’ve been stopped in the street endlessly and asked: Are we going to be OK? As so often in this pandemic we face uncertainty, as little is yet known about this new variant.
The Government’s response so far has been right – rapid action to take appropriate precautions.
Health Secretary Sajid Javid was criticised last week for acting so quickly to stop flights from southern Africa, where the new variant was first seen, but in my view he was absolutely correct.
Given the uncertainty, and the time it takes to assess each new variant, slowing the spread is critical. All the lessons I learned as Health Secretary show that when you get new facts, you must act fast.
Last week we were greeted by the grim news of Omicron – a significant new variant of Covid-19, the first in several weeks. The Government rightly acted fast to take sensible precautions
So this new Covid variant reminds us that this crisis isn’t over. But I believe that we are much better placed. The UK is in a stronger position.
While we must be vigilant, we have the chance to get through this without resorting to the sorts of draconian measures that were unavoidable this time last year.
This Thursday it will be a year to the day since the Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccine was formally approved. I will never forget the moment I was told that the final trials were successful.
I immediately went to see the Prime Minister and was able to tell him that we would be the first country in the world to start vaccinating.
I felt a mixture of emotions – relief that we had a way out, joy that we could see a way to get things back to normal, and pride in the team who had really pulled it out of the bag.
Health Secretary Sajid Javid was criticised last week for acting so quickly to stop flights from southern Africa, where the new variant was first seen, but in my view he was absolutely correct
Months of hard work all built up to this point, where we could replace lockdowns and other restrictions with protection from modern science.
In my view, this single moment will be remembered as the time when human science and ingenuity started to beat the invisible killer of Covid.
Compared with a year ago, we have vaccines, we have boosters, we have tests, and we have the infrastructure to get all of them to where they need to be.
The UK’s rollout was the fastest of any major country in the world, meaning that over the summer the Prime Minister could lift almost all of the remaining restrictions.
He was criticised at the time and told the plan wouldn’t work. But he rightly asked: If not now, when? We could remove restrictions in the summer, and the protection from the vaccine would keep this virus under control.
Thankfully, even as we have seen the number of cases rise, the number of hospitalisations and deaths have started to fall.
This autumn, the number of people in hospital with Covid peaked at 9,667 at the start of November and has since fallen to under 8,000.
The number of new arrivals at hospitals with Covid each day has fallen by over a quarter in a month.
Since the summer, many of those who have chosen not to get vaccinated have caught Covid. Hospitals tell me that young people in Covid wards are mostly unvaccinated.
Of course people have also caught Covid after getting the jab. But the chances are that it’s likely to be similar to a bad cold, and your chances of ending up in hospital, or worse, are low.
This all means that the levels of immunity are higher. Figures released last week from the UK Health Security Agency show that 98 per cent of adults have antibodies – from infection or vaccination – compared with just over a fifth from infection alone. And while the new variant may not respond as before to vaccines, the likelihood of it not responding at all is slim. We simply do not know yet.
I’ve been stopped in the street endlessly and asked: Are we going to be OK? As so often in this pandemic we face uncertainty, as little is yet known about this new variant
Thankfully we are better prepared now than our friends abroad. We have seen other European countries imposing more lockdowns and are sadly seeing case rates and deaths rise exponentially.
Britain’s early adoption of a vaccine means we have avoided this fate. It wasn’t just that we had the first approval in the world and the fastest rollout of any major country, it was that the overwhelming majority of people came forward to get the jab.
In the most vulnerable groups, take-up is almost 100 per cent. Among over 65s more than nine in ten have had the vaccine. It’s been a huge team effort and everyone has played their part.
This autumn, the boosters are giving an extra layer of protection. Again, Britain leads the world. Now that more than a quarter of us have had our boosters, the protection is getting stronger and stronger.
And boosters – especially from a mix of different vaccines – give a broader protection that is likely to be more effective against a wider array of variants.
In addition, striking new evidence from AstraZeneca last week also shows the power of the Oxford vaccine in generating a second, longer-lasting safeguard called T-cell protection.
At the start of the pandemic we stuck with the science and backed the British jab – instead of dismissing it for narrow political reasons as some of our Continental neighbours did.
In addition, striking new evidence from AstraZeneca last week also shows the power of the Oxford vaccine in generating a second, longer-lasting safeguard called T-cell protection
While nearly half of the first jabs in the UK were with the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine, far fewer of our European neighbours have been injected with it.
We came together as a nation in other ways too. Both for vaccines and now for boosters, we prioritise who gets a jab according to whose life is most at risk.
While many countries around the world prioritised vaccination by employment, we followed the advice of the independent experts on the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation and jabbed in order of clinical need.
Research published recently by the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine modelled the immunity levels of 19 countries in Europe.
This showed that if everyone was suddenly exposed to the virus in one go, we would be the lowest at risk of serious illness as a result of our vaccine and immunity levels.
Next, we have large-scale testing so we know where the virus is. Just over a year ago we took the first delivery of the lateral flow tests that are now ubiquitous.
Regular testing helps to find who is ill and stops them infecting others. It is a vital piece of our armoury and firing on all cylinders.
Finally, we now have antiviral treatments to lower the impact of the disease if you do catch Covid. These are being given to those most at risk – and they have the potential to save many lives.
Like with vaccines, we don’t know yet how much the new variant will affect their life-saving power. But we do know that the likelihood of going back to square one is small.
This race between the virus and vaccines isn’t over yet. We must be vigilant. We must get vaccinated the moment we can. But we are better prepared and better able to respond to this new variant – and keep our much cherished freedoms this winter.