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The endemic equilibrium
Sensemaker audio

The endemic equilibrium

The endemic equilibrium

The government is under increasing pressure to reintroduce Covid restrictions. Why are they holding off?



Transcript
Claudia, narrating:

Hi, I’m Claudia and this is Sensemaker. 

One story, everyday, to make sense of the world. 

Today, why Boris Johnson is reluctant to reintroduce measures to combat Covid despite a surge in infections.

***

“In essence we’re going to keep going… we’ll continue to offer testing. I will continue to urge everyone to be sensible, to be responsible, wash your hands, use ventilation…”

Boris Johnson speaking at a Downing Street press conference

That was Boris Johnson speaking last month as he laid out his plan for the winter.

There was Plan A, offer jabs to secondary school pupils and boosters to over-50s and frontline workers.

Then there was Plan B, the reintroduction of compulsory face masks, Covid passports and working from home. 

A is happening.  B is not. Not in England, anyway.  

In Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, face coverings are still mandatory in most indoor settings.

“At the moment the data does not suggest that we should be immediately moving to Plan B but of course we will keep an eye on that…”

Rishi Sunak on the Andrew Marr Show, BBC

The decisions being made are being influenced by modelling, something that predicts how Covid infections, hospitalisations and deaths might play out in the next few months.

One of the modellers is Professor John Edmunds and his work, arguably, makes him one of the most influential people in the country right now.

[Clips: montage of news presenters introducing John Edmunds]

He’s a member of SAGE, the government’s Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies. And with Covid cases surging, you’d think John Edmunds would be telling the government to switch to Plan B.  

It turns out it’s what most of us want. 

According to the Office for National Statistics and a poll by YouGov, the polls are saying most people want masks to be compulsory once again – on public transport and in shops.  

And they want social distancing brought in again too.

Labour say they back the immediate reintroduction of restrictions. 

So, is the government right to hold off? 

***

Nearly half of all Covid cases at the moment have been in the under-20s.

“The spread of Covid-19 among children in England is fuelling a rise in cases, and concern among scientists…”

Reuters

It’s what experts are calling the “children’s epidemic”. They’re predicting high infection rates will tail off soon as immunity in youngsters increases.  

Here’s John Edmunds again.

“It’s not the way I prefer to have children immunised, I’d much much prefer it to be through vaccination. However, we’ve vaccinated at quite a low rate and yet we’ve witnessed very high rates of infection in schools. Eventually that leads to high levels of immunity in children.”

John Edmunds speaking on ITV News

And jabs for teenagers are slowly starting to make headway too. 

There’s also the current bonus of the half-term break in England, Wales and Northern Ireland.  

Less mixing will reduce numbers too.  

And so that’s why John Edmunds thinks cases, hospital admissions and deaths will peak in November, but start to fall rapidly to much lower levels by Christmas. 

No-one wants the virus, of course, but some people argue that its spread might be of some benefit to society in general.  

***

Back in 2020, John Edmunds argued that herd immunity was the only way to end the epidemic.

“What I said about herd immunity was that’s how the epidemic eventually will end and it will end by a herd immunity… we’ll be under these restrictions in some way, until the levels of immunity are such in the population that we don’t have to take extra precautions to stop chains of transmission.”

John Edmunds speaking on the Andrew Marr Show, BBC

That’s why – according to John Edmunds – the main effect of reintroducing social distancing and mandatory face masks will merely delay a future outbreak. 

Yes, Plan B would buy us more time and it would ease pressure on the NHS over the winter, but we would expect infection rates to rise again next Spring.

Right now, we can afford to see higher rates because the majority of infections are among the young – who don’t get as ill as older people – and those who, because they have been double jabbed, are less likely to need treatment in hospital.

So, are things looking up?  

Well John Edmunds believes we’re inching closer to something called “endemic equilibrium”.

Here’s Dr John Campbell who is a retired nurse and a popular YouTuber who posts videos about Covid, explaining what that means.

“Endemic equilibrium. So endemic means it’s going to be with us for some time. But equilibrium means that the cases are going to stay roughly where they are, hopefully at this lowest level of about 5,000 a day.”

Dr John Campbell

So even if Plan B were brought in, there’s a case to suggest it would have little effect because of the immunity we’ve built up. 

The only question that remains, is whether John Edmunds’ modelling is right?

Today’s Sensemaker was written and produced by Imy Harper.