n December 29th There have been 246,215 cases of Kovid-19 in the UK, which is three times more than a year ago. If Britain’s immunity levels were the same as in the winter of 2020, when almost no one was vaccinated, this number would constitute a new sequence of disaster. Many thousands of people will be dying every day. But thanks to vaccinations, they are not. The death toll after testing positive for Covid-19 is now about one-twentieth as compared to last winter.
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It is against this background that the government is considering stopping providing free lateral-flow testing to the public, a policy that has cost more than £6bn ($8.2bn) so far. It faltered recently in the face of public outcry, but the supply will soon run out, no doubt. However, times are thorny. NHS Spread thin. Scientists and public-health experts worry that high caseloads will leave large numbers of people with post-viral conditions collectively known as Covid for a long time, and that ending free testing Virus will get promoted. Some people have become accustomed to the license given by the single pink line of the test taken before meeting with friends or colleagues.
But Omicron’s properties change the logic of the test. It is far more permeable than previous forms, and has driven its predecessors to worldwide extinction in just one month. There is no chance to finish it; Even China, with all the authoritarianism it can muster, will fail. In addition to spreading through populations with stronger immunity to it, Omicron also naturally causes milder disease than previous forms. This is due to its developed tendency to infect the upper part rather than the lower respiratory tract.
This means that the risk that people will die or be hospitalized because an uninsured person passes on the disease unknowingly is lower than ever. Conversely, the risk that essential services will be disrupted as people are forced to isolate themselves after testing positive is greater than ever. Chris Hopson, owner of a union NHS Hospitals said on January 8 that the shortage caused by staff isolating after positive tests is creating a problem “bigger if not bigger” than the influx of Covid-positive patients. Even though more Britons got themselves tested in the past month than ever before, the virus has spread widely.
For some, the balance of cost and benefit now argues for eliminating the distribution of free lateral-flow tests. “The downside of essentially transmitting a common cold to some people is not great,” says Sir John Bell, Regius Professor of Medicine at the University of Oxford. “Spending a lot of money on a testing regime that locks out a lot of people and means the economy doesn’t move forward; it has a significant drawback.”
But the testing infrastructure must be kept ready to swing into gear again in the short run, Sir John warns, if a new version changes the cost-benefit equation once again. Too little is known about viral evolution to believe that one would not emerge that is as contagious as Omicron but causes many more severe cases.
As the UK nears the end of its free lateral-flow testing plan, the US is just starting to distribute its own free trials. O’Micron’s argument is different there, as fewer people are fully vaccinated. Other countries will be watching how Britain performs to see if Sir John and the government’s calculations are correct, and whether eliminating widespread asymptomatic testing actually proves beneficial overall. As the pandemic subsides, and the focus shifts to whether or not a person is infected with COVID-19, the public’s attention to the number of daily cases may also decrease.
During the pandemic the UK government has tried to hesitantly add protective measures and decisively remove them, a pattern that has attracted criticism. Its rapid embrace of free lateral-flow tests went against that grain. Ending the plan will feel like the blanket of comfort has been abandoned. That doesn’t mean it’s wrong. I
All our stories related to the pandemic can be found on our Coronavirus Hub. You can also find trackers showing the global roll-out of vaccines, more deaths by country, and the spread of the virus across Europe.
This article appeared in the UK section of the print edition under the title “Look Away”.