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Towards a new Normal?

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Everybody is probably very happy to see 2020 recede in the rear view mirror. However, what of the road ahead? People, businesses, governments are all looking forward to a return to normalcy. But what if it is not possible to return to that place that we called “normality”. We may strive for a return to our comfort zone, but if it is not possible, what might the “new normal” look like? As the Chairman of a residential care home charity, I find it interesting to not only ask and ponder upon these questions, but recognise that they need some form of answer because they are of vital importance to the future wellbeing of everybody, not just the fastest growing proportion of the UK population – the elderly.

A wise man once said that the measure of a nation’s greatness is measured by how it treats its elderly and vulnerable members of society. The CV19 pandemic has seen over 100,000 people die in the UK to date. That fact makes the UK, on a per capita basis, one of the worst performers in the world. Even if we net off the quantum of those individuals who, despite CV19 would have died anyway, it is a shocking statistic. The stories of pain, misery, loss and grief we can only guess at. So, lest we forget, we owe it to those who have lost their lives to this insidious virus to understand not only how we got to where we are, but also where we might be going to from here.

I retired from full time work in 2018. This was just about the same time that the first rumblings were coming out of China of a potential new novel corona virus. If I am honest, I did not take these reports seriously. This was something happening in faraway China. However, a dear friend recommended to me that I sign up for the London School of Tropical Medicine’s on line course. I did and spent January and February 2019 reading material and being examined on line on the presented data. Even then the data was staggering. The scientists knew, and were advising Government’s that the virulence of CV19 was greater than Ebola. Two statistics, in particular, still stick in my mind. If the UK and US Government’s did not respond effectively, then they were likely to lose c. 400,000 and 2,000,000 souls respectively.

This is not meant as a political commentary. Whatever colour of Government was in power, I believe they would have struggled. However, it is important for us to ask questions if only that we can learn from past mistakes and avoid similar pitfalls. From the start, the UK Government’s strategy and approach to CV19 has been one of infection control. Implicit in this is the underlying beliefs that a large proportion of the population will become infected, that the public health system could be swamped and overrun, and that there could be social unrest. So the playbook called for the infection rate to be as controlled as much as possible and is neatly summed up in the positioning piece “Stay at Home:  Save Lives: Protect the NHS”.

The centre of gravity of this infection control strategy is fundamentally dependent upon two things. Firstly, the right behaviours being followed by the vast majority of the population. Secondly, the nation’s physical, spiritual and mental health out trumping the economic health of the nation around the Cabinet table. It is clear, I believe, to all observers that the Government has yo-yoed between these two conflicting positions. The bottom line is that without physical, spiritual and mental health you have no economy! My conclusion must therefore be that, despite being blessed with glorious weather, the first lockdown was neither long enough nor strict enough. With the benefit of hindsight, it was an opportunity missed.

Combined with this is the fact that CV19 is a living thing. It needs to transmit and spread. It is just trying to do what most living things do – survive. The need to survive sees it mutating and new variants arising. This tells me it has the initial measure of its host. It has worked out our weaknesses and is seeking to now leverage its position. It is as if the virus knows that it must stay at least one step ahead of the vaccines that are being designed to stop it spreading.

So what of the future and the road ahead? I sense that by November we will as a nation have vaccinated no more than 70% of the population. Notwithstanding the possibility of even more variants emerging, this will help create a herd of immunity. That does not mean that people’s general behaviour can revert to pre COVID days. I think Winter 2021 will see a huge spike in CV19 infections. Sadly, it will bring more deaths. The numbers involved will be a function of the efficacy of the vaccines, the speed at which the virus can mutate and the general behaviour of the populous. 

We need ultimately to get to a mind-set where we manage CV19 like the flu. We will probably be having CV19 vaccinations for the foreseeable future alongside normal flu injections. Despite vaccines and herd immunity, I think that 2m social distancing is here for a long time to come and that business models that are dependent upon people socially gathering need to quickly examine their options in order to find new approaches. This has huge implications for the economy in general but particularly our education, health and hospitality industries. Travel, particularly air travel, is going to remain difficult, if not impossible in many cases.

We also need to be cognisant of the post-viral condition commonly referred to as ‘Long Covid’. In the absence of identifying this complex syndrome with any established medical condition, this is of great concern. We have no real idea of the long term implications of this effect but I would soon expect to see life insurance and mortgage applications soon to include the question “Have you ever tested positive for CV19?” This is something that will potentially lurk within our younger population and will no doubt keep the actuaries busy for several years to come. Depending upon the bandwidth of an individual’s immune system, “long Covid” may present as a stroke, exhaustion, neurological impairment or renal failure for many in later life. 

I apologise if my reflections come across as bleak. In my defence, I believe in being prepared for the worst, coupled with under promising and over delivering. That disposition makes me positive at heart. I see necessity as being the mother of invention. I believe in the human spirit and I have confidence that we can overcome the challenge that has been placed before us. However, I also see the timing as opportune. We must not allow the souls who have fallen to the virus to date to have died for no reason at all. All nations now need to come together and use the pandemic as an opportunity to throw the global re-set button. The pandemic has made me appreciate better that we are all truly part of a global community.

Covid is not only creating change, it is accelerating trends and forces that were already at play. We need to identify and share all the learnings associated with terrible pandemic. We need to do so in a spirit of openness in order to develop new pathways for dealing with such global catastrophes. Improving our capability and capacity to respond is important if we are to be able to look forward with belief and newfound confidence that we all can do our bit to leave behind us a better world than the one we came into.    

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Posted on 2nd February 2021

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