Rebound, resurgence, second wave – whatever you call it, the current coronavirus situation is worrying. Evidence suggests new infections are increasing in many European countries, including Britain, while in the US, we see the dire consequences of lifting restrictions too early. Globally the pandemic continues to accelerate.
We have already been here, of course. In early 2020, we had rising infection levels but didn’t take the necessary steps. The result was a painful lockdown that should have come sooner. Thousands of excess deaths occurred. We cannot make the same mistakes.
Lockdown did allow us to control the virus’s spread, however, and summer has helped keep down infection levels, with many workplaces not fully reopened, universities and schools closed, public transport use down, while people are mainly meeting outside in warmer weather that is not conducive for viral survival.
But the gradual uptick in cases has shown us we’ve now reached – if not already exceeded – the absolute limits of easing restrictions. The R value, which tells you how many people will get the virus if in contact with an infected person, is close to 1. There are worrying signs that we’re in danger of heading in the wrong direction.
As we head into autumn we will be forced to make tough choices in order to keep transmission down while restarting the economy, increasing employment and protecting public health. There are no easy answers, but one thing is clear: reopening schools must be the priority.
Young people have been disproportionately impacted by Covid. Closing classrooms damages their education and wellbeing, particularly the disadvantaged and vulnerable for whom school can be their one safe space. Education is a key route to reducing the social inequalities this disease exploits. Schools can also help young people understand this pandemic and the measures needed to cope with it. Opening schools will also allow parents to resume work.
Most urgently, we need to ramp up testing. We are not where we need to be
Many teachers are understandably worried – for their pupils, themselves and communities so it is vital we give them reassurance about their safety and enable them to feel confident to return.
There is no such thing as zero risk, of course. While children are in less danger from the virus, opening classrooms will still increase mixing and community transmission. The situation will have to be monitored closely, so we can make changes quickly if outbreaks occur. But it is a risk we can take cautiously, if we take the actions needed over the next month to drive infection rates back down and make schools as safe as possible.
We have only got a small window to reduce infections through public health measures: handwashing, wearing masks, keeping physical distances and increasing clinical care capacity. At the same time, we must keep developing vaccines, treatments and tests.
Most urgently, we need to ramp up testing. We are not where we need to be. We must improve contact tracing, so we’re identifying more cases and providing better, faster data locally. We need to make it much easier for everyone to get tested, including those who have been in contact with cases or think they might be infected, whether they have symptoms or not. And we need to make sure the results are reported back to people quickly, to encourage them to adapt their behaviour and stop the ongoing transmission. The Test-Trace-Isolate system has to work and deserves all our support.”
If we use this brief window wisely, we’ll be in the best position to reopen schools, protect healthcare workers and the vulnerable, restart the economy and prepare for what could otherwise be a tough autumn and winter. If we don’t, we may not be able to reopen schools without introducing new restrictions elsewhere. These are the trade-offs we face – if we do not act now.
• Jeremy Farrar is director of the Wellcome Trust