So it’s up to us now. The government is happy to advise us about “safer behaviours” (masking, distancing, hand washing and, above all, getting vaccinated) but nothing’s mandatory. Individual transport companies, shops, or concert halls can demand that we mask as a condition of entry but it’s rare to see it enforced. But how do we decide what is safe?
The first point to make is that COVID-19 is very much around. At the beginning of April 2022 there were 4.5 million active cases in the UK and 20,000 active cases in Brighton and Hove, according to the ZOE Covid Study. With a population of 290,000 that means that 1 in 14 in Brighton and Hove will have COVID-19. That’s a bit worrying. Not all of them will be out in the street or on the buses, of course. Those with symptoms are more likely to stay at home. But one third will have no symptoms and quite a few more will have such mild symptoms that they haven’t thought to have a test. It means that, if you get on a full bus, it’s quite likely that there’s someone on board who is shedding the virus.
The second point is that it’s still not a trivial illness. Even those with mild symptoms find it can last a couple of weeks and knocks them out. Those with more severe disease can take months to recover. Even with the Omicron variant, 1 in 200 are admitted to hospital. Then there’s Long Covid, which is no joke and may last years. The Office for National Statistics reckons that 1.5 million people in the UK have it now. Strangely, it’s commonest, not in the elderly, but in those aged 35 to 49.
But how useful are those “safer behaviours”? Let’s take them in turn.
First, mask wearing. A recent study from California found that those who wore a mask all the time when indoors in a public place were half as likely to be infected as those who didn’t mask. And the ones who wore the best masks (KN95 masks) were the ones most likely not to be infected. But which mask should we use? I’m not keen on disposable “surgical” masks – they are single use plastic and we are trying to stop using such things. KN95 masks are stronger; you can reuse them till they start to get dirty. If you go for a fabric mask, choose carefully. The Consumer Magazine Which? did a survey which showed that reusable fabric masks varied in ability to trap tiny particles from 99.9% to 7% effective! To read it search online on ‘survey of face masks by Which?’.
Second, what about distancing? It’s not as simple as 1 metre or 2 metres. It depends on whether the person shedding virus is masked or talking or shouting; outdoors or indoors, and if indoors how big the space is, and how well ventilated. Put simply, the greatest risk is with lots of people, unmasked, in a small space for a prolonged time with poor ventilation, who are singing or shouting. Sounds as though a nightclub is the perfect venue for spreading virus but it could be the church choir practice.
What about hand hygiene – washing or sanitising? SAGE looked at the evidence recently and found that it can reduce respiratory virus infections, including COVID-19, by 16%. Rather than doing it every two hours (or whenever), do it after touching a surface that could be contaminated (e.g. a rail or door handle used by lots of people) and especially before putting a hand to your nose or mouth (e.g.eating).
Does vaccination protect us so we don’t need to bother with these safety measures? NO! It’s very effective at protecting us from serious disease, but full vaccination plus a booster only gives us 67% protection against catching COVID-19. How much the safety measures add to that protection depends on too many factors to give a single figure. For most people, however, they would bump their protection up to 80% or above.
What do I plan to do? I’ll take any boosters I’m offered. I’ll mask with a Which? recommended fabric mask if I go indoors in a public place, unless it’s practically empty. I’ll go to the cinema but not to the gym at a busy time. I’ll carry on sanitising my hands if I’ve touched things others have touched. And then we get to the most controversial change the government has made: no compulsory isolation for cases or contacts. I’m still going to isolate if I get COVID-19 and if I’m a close contact of someone who has it.
This brings me to my final point. This article has been about how to protect ourselves. What about how we can protect others? Some of those others will be people who could be killed by the virus. I can’t tell if the person next to me on the bus or in the queue in the supermarket is at high risk. So I’m going to behave as though they might be, and as though I could be carrying the virus.