Is this the end of the pandemic?

It may seem an odd thing to say when in the UK we have had more people contracting Covid in recent weeks than ever before, but I think this week may mark the end of the pandemic. Numbers of cases are now reducing, and numbers of people in hospital have not reached anything like the peaks of last spring. When we look back in a year’s time I think Omicron may be seen as having been a good thing. It has given millions of people increased immunity, adding to the benefits of vaccines, without immobilising the NHS or killing vast numbers. Of course I know that every death is a tragedy, and I feel for everyone impacted, but at last can we now get back to normality?

UK cases by age group – source Zoe Study

I wonder if living more normally is one reason that the UK public have been so angry this week at the revelation that Boris Johnson attended a party in his garden, while we were in full lockdown back in 2020. Most of us have suffered materially in the past two years, whether through loss of friends and relatives, or damage to our own physical and mental health. Despite this we have got on with our lives. We have built up anger with nowhere to direct it. Now perhaps we can let that out a little. And when we find out that the likes of Boris Johnson, Matt Hancock, Dominic Cummings have been ignoring or bending rules, then that anger overflows.

Personally this week I have felt a mixture of anger, fascination with the politics and some sympathy with those involved. The latter may seem a contradiction, but I do have sympathy with the civil servants who had been putting themselves at risk, working 12+ hours a day in close contact with each other to try to help this country through the pandemic. Back in May 2020 I was leading a large operational team, most of whom where working at home, but some who had to work in an office. Those people did not have alcohol or parties but sometimes they would let of steam in the grassy area outside the office. They would maintain social distance and I believe followed all rules, but to someone outside would it look as if they were taking things seriously enough? I don’t know.

In the UK we have a reputation that we can laugh at anything, smile in the most trying of circumstances, make fun of serious events. We all needed those safety valves in May 2020, as we do now. If this is truly the end of the pandemic, let’s adopt the ideas of the recently deceased Desmond Tutu, who led the Truth and Reconciliation reviews after apartheid was dismantled. Let’s try to find out the truth about what happened and how it could have been better, let’s apologise for things that were wrong. And then let’s move on.

Am I mad?

Eight wishes for 2022

Happy New Year’s Eve!

When I was working, we used to write objectives for the coming year. So this year I have decided not to make resolutions about things I will stop or start doing. Instead I have identified eight outcomes to aim for by the end of 2022.

  1. I will have a happy family. For various reasons the past couple of years have not been easy for my sons, but things are on the up and this will be a good year. Mandy and I will continue to love our retired life.
  2. We will have had an amazing year on the narrowboat. Last year we were able to spend 4 months travelling the canals in the north of England. This year we will spend over 6 months in the south, meeting friends and family as we travel, seeing wonderful places, and enjoying the best of the countryside.
  3. I will have lost weight and will be fitter. I made pretty good progress on this when we were travelling last year, but the past couple of months have been more slovenly.
  4. We will have decided where we want our house for the next twenty years. This was also a goal for 2021 but we have struggled to choose between the many wonderful places in the UK.
  5. Covid will no longer dominate our lives. This is a hard goal for me to achieve by myself, but I have a good feeling that after the Omicron wave, we will be living with the disease as we do with flu or a cold.
  6. I will have been abroad again. I have really missed travelling. This year I want to go to at least one new place outside the UK.
  7. I will have experienced many perfect moments. I love those moments when you suddenly see an incredible view, or a sunrise, or you sit down with friends for a wonderful meal and you realise that it does not get any better than this.
  8. I will have continued to write this blog. There is something about writing each week that I find really satisfying and mindful, as I take the opportunity to reflect.

What about you? What are your goals for 2022? Whatever they are I wish you a very happy, healthy and prosperous year.

Love Pete

Why I am not panicking about Omicron

In the summer I wrote a blog about why I thought the UK government was pursuing a herd immunity strategy by deliberately letting people get ill with Covid. I said that there was nothing wrong with this strategy but they should be honest about it.

Six months later I am convinced I was right, and if Omicron had not arrived, we would be in a good position for this winter. Unfortunately we are now faced with yet more Christmas restrictions and in some ways it feels as if we are back to square one. However, I think there are at least four reasons we should be more optimistic this time:

  1. Vaccines do make a difference. I realise there are still some anti-vaxxers around who will call me a sheep, but I have had all three doses, and I am convinced they will help reduce the severity of any illness.
  2. Natural immunity makes a difference. Like vaccines it may not stop people catching Omicron, but it should help reduce the severity.
  3. We have free lateral flow tests widely available. If people are sensible and test themselves before meeting up, there is a good chance we can reduce the spread a little at least.
  4. I am optimistic that Omicron is less severe than Delta and Alpha. I realise the government and doctors are underplaying this because they want to encourage boosters, but it does appear to be the case in South Africa, and we have always been told by virologists that at some point there would be a fast spreading weak variant, just as there was at the end of Spanish flu, a hundred years ago.

There has to be at least a reasonable chance that by February we will be through this pandemic. Covid will be with us forever no doubt, just like flu and the common cold, but after two years we could all do with a break.

I realise this is not my normal blog about how great retirement is, but it does reflect what is on my mind this week. I have been looking after my Mum in Salisbury this week, after she had ten days in hospital with heart problems. So I am just very conscious about infections.

Back to the normal baloney next week!

Is it safe to go out now?

Musically I am definitely a child of the eighties. I was student in London, working in a radio station, and top 40 music gave a background to most everything I did. My favourite two bands were Madness and Squeeze, so you can imagine my delight when a few months ago I found out they were touring together, and I excitedly bought a ticket on the day they went on sale. The concert was last Friday at the big Arena in Glasgow and as the evening approached I began to feel more and more nervous.

Omicron was already beginning to spread and in Scotland, a group of those affected had been at a concert at the same venue a week before. This was the first time I had been out to any event like this. I had been to see a couple of films at the cinema, but this was a single room with thousands of singing fans. Should I go?

Well, in the end I decided I would go. I have had all three jabs and was feeling fighting fit. I wore a mask throughout (although most did not). I stayed on the outskirts of the crowd so that I could maintain some kind of social distance. And I left before the encores so that I could get ahead of the crowd.

Was it worth it? I really did love the songs and a great show was put on. And I did not catch Covid. It is now a week later, and tests show me still clear. It was a managed risk. If I had got ill, the chances are it would have been mild.

But I spent the evening on edge. After nearly two years of pandemic we are still nowhere near back to normal. Is it time to live with this disease or is it time to stay safe? What do you think?

Why is no-one talking about herd immunity?

At the start of the pandemic, it is generally accepted that Boris Johnson wanted to let the virus spread and form some kind of herd immunity amongst the population. It was only when it became apparent that this approach would overwhelm the hospitals and kill over a million that he made a sudden u-turn and introduced the first lock down. Ever since then, the phrase “herd immunity” seems to have been banished from the language of both politicians and scientists.

And yet, in the UK, herd immunity appears to be exactly what we are looking for. All restrictions have been removed and the virus numbers are really high. But because of vaccination, relatively few are getting really ill and dying. So long as this remains the case, politicians and epidemiologists seem happy to let Covid-19 spread. By doing so we are increasing immunity across the population, whether in children, where maybe 60% have now had Covid, or amongst vaccinated adults. In either case, every time someone gets ill, their immunity increases, and their chance of getting seriously ill decreases.

I think what we are really aiming towards is a situation where we all live with Covid. Children will be expected to catch it when young and it is a mild disease (think of chickenpox as an analogy). People will then catch it again a couple of times during their life but each time, natural immunity will mean it is not generally serious. If necessary vaccinations will top us up. Herd immunity will have been reached.

Personally I see only two problems with this approach. The first is that the rest of the world is not following it. Instead, tight lockdowns continue to be used. So will the UK become a plague state that everyone else is scared to visit? The second is that leaders are not being honest that this is our approach. They are terrified that when someone dies, they will be blamed for letting it happen. But if this is what they are doing they should be honest about it.

What do you think? Is herd immunity a goal worth aiming for, or should we go back to locking down the disease?

Have the jabs made you invincible?

Today marks a milestone for me. Two weeks after my second vaccination means that my immunity to Covid is about as high as it will get. My chance of getting the disease is much lower now, and even more importantly, the chance of me getting seriously ill and dying is very small. It makes me feel invincible.

Yesterday lunchtime Mandy and I felt invincible enough to go across the road for lunch at our local bistro. This new café opened at the start of last year and the owner, Kumar, was immediately faced with months of lockdown, and yet no reduction in costs for things like council tax and licensing. We have really wanted to support this local business but it is a small room and we were honestly scared, so yesterday was the first time. Kumar could not have been more welcoming. I had their oriental vegetarian burger, made with lentils, lemongrass and coriander and it was delicious. And maybe because we have both had two jabs/jags now, we did not feel nervous at all. Thanks Kumar.

I was reading this morning a report from the Bank of England, saying that the UK economy is growing rapidly as we have opened up again. That is good news and I guess we all need to put particular effort into supporting local businesses. Amazon has had quite enough of my trade this past year.

The other thing I should have been be getting excited about this week was our expected trip down to England with our narrowboat. We were meant to be leaving our marina on Tuesday for a little tour of the Scottish lowland canals, before lifting the boat out of the water near Glasgow, and taking it down south. Unfortunately Scottish Canals have a big problem this week with the main water feed into the Forth and Clyde canal, and all boat movements have been stopped. This is immensely frustrating because there is nothing we can do. Even being invincible is no help.

Grrrrrrr.

How are you feeling this week? Invincible? Frustrated? Excited?

Enjoy your weekend, Pete

Of the world population, what percentage lives in low-income countries?

I have been reading a book this week called “Factfulness” by Hans Rosling. It is a fascinating read because it uncovers many of the misconceptions we have about the world. For instance our brains love the simplicity of splitting the world into haves or have nots, rich and poor; while the truth is that most of the world is in the middle. We also tend to have a negative view of the world because we hear many more negative stories than positive ones. As Hans says, a journalist would not last long writing stories such as “plane does not crash” or “child does not die early”. And us slightly older people tend to romanticise our memories of youth, remembering the great days playing out, rather than the nights we went to bed hungry.

The really positive news in the book is that key measures across the world continue to get better. When you read the title of this blog, what percentage did you come up with? Typically people choose a number well over 50%. That was true until about 1990. But it has been decreasing from around 85% in 1800 and the decrease has accelerated. The figure today is around 9%. I have spent a lot of time in India over the past twenty years, and a common comment from me is that alongside the wealth you see so much poverty, But I realise now that comment is based on what I first saw. When I started visiting, around 40% of the Indian population were very poor. The figure today is more like 10%.

The book was written in 2017 so does not have as clear a view as we do today of climate change and the pandemic. Do they halt the progress in its tracks? No, but they are both catastrophic events. Global warming is too late to reverse and some of the same challenges to how we think stop us paying attention. Newspapers in the UK this week have had headlines about the hot weather, but all in a positive light. And the pandemic continues to cause larger numbers of excess deaths than we have seen for years. But if the stats from the UK and US are to be believed, vaccination can break the link between transmission and death, so I remain optimistic that in 12 months time we will have bounced back. And the underlying improvements in society we have seen will continue – less poverty, less hunger, more gender equality, cleaner and available energy, improved health.

There are a whole range of free online quizzes on this subject available at gapminder.org. Go and have a look. You may well find your view of the world needs an upgrade!

Have a positive weekend, Pete

What should I do with hundreds of old newspapers?

Last weekend I went to stay with my Mum in Salisbury. The main reason was to see her for the first time in eighteen months, but it was also to try to sort out a move of nursing homes for my Dad. He has advanced Alzheimer’s dementia and needs 24 by 7 care. It is a sad situation and it is important for me to remember him how he was, rather than how he is now.

So while I was in Salisbury I went up into the loft and reclaimed eight or nine boxes of my Dad’s old newspapers. Now before you think that my Dad was a slightly strange hoarder, these are not just any old newspapers. It was his hobby to collect papers from many years ago. They are fascinating to read, partly for how the front page headline stories were portrayed, such as when the Titanic was sunk, or when the world wars ended, or when we landed on the moon. But also equally for the inconsequential stories and adverts throughout the paper. Who knew so many corsets were sold a hundred years ago?

Dad has papers from as far back as the seventeenth century, but his biggest collection is from the year of his birth – 1936. They paint a real picture of a year that mixed everyday stories with what we now know was the preparation for a war that changed the lives of everyone across the globe. I wonder if in 90 years time, someone will be reading the newspapers from the start of 2020, fascinated by what was being said about a little virus in Wuhan and how that contrasted with page after page about how we were all so cross about Brexit.

I have brought the newspapers home to Scotland and over the next week I plan to curate them, rebox them and hopefully find time to read a few. I do not have so long before we set off on our summer tour of England on the narrowboat, so much of that reading may have to wait.

As I have begun going through the boxes, I came across a speech my father had given to the local rotary club about his hobby. He tells a story about how he was travelling back on a train from London reading one of his old newspapers about the death of Queen Mary. A fellow traveller asked why he was reading a fifty year old paper. My Dad replied “I guess I am just a slow reader”. I am looking forward through my ongoing retirement also to become a slow reader.

Did your parents have any unusual hobbies? What do you think of them now?

Is there light at the end of the tunnel, or is that a narrowboat coming towards you?

I have been walking through a couple of canal tunnels this week. Some of the most exciting and scary times on a narrowboat are travelling through tunnels. Most canal tunnels have very little space around the boat profile. This is deliberate because when the canals were designed, the boats were pulled by horses, and the horses would not go through tunnels, so the boats were “legged” through by two strong men, lying on either side of the barge roof and using their legs to “walk” along the tunnel. These days we have engines and we have to steer 50-60 foot long boats through the tunnel with often less than a foot space on either side.

Falkirk Tunnel

There are two keys to success. Don’t be overconfident and don’t panic. Fluid mechanics give us a big advantage because the water being pushed either side of the boat as you travel through the tunnel, gives pressure to keep the boat away from the walls. But if you are overconfident and drive too fast, or if you panic and over-react to each boat movement, then before you know it, you are bouncing the boat off the walls side to side.

I wonder of there is an analogy. Here in the UK the Covid numbers have fallen right back. Deaths and hospitalisations are very low, since so many of the population are now vaccinated. Society is reopening, with shops, bars, gyms, cinemas now back or soon to be back. In a month or so we will be nearly normal. There is talk about Coronavirus treatment in pills taken at home next winter. It really feels that there is light at the end of the tunnel.

But two things could get in the way. One would be overconfidence. If we relax the rules too fast, give up on social distancing, refuse to self isolate, then it will be back. The other would be to panic. There are some horrible new variants out there, but the science is working and we can steer our way through this perilous tunnel.

Have wonderful weekend. Let me know hat you think.

Ten reasons to get the Vaccine

On Sunday my wife and I had our first doses of the AstraZeneca vaccine, and it made me reflect on why we all should be vaccinated if we are able.

  1. It can save our lives. Admittedly, as an overweight mid fifties man, I am more at risk, but the evidence shows that the vaccines prevent near 100% of deaths from Covid-19, in all age groups.
  2. It will save other people’s lives. There is clear evidence now that the vaccines reduce the transmission of Covid from you to others and therefore helps stop the spread of disease to those that are not yet vaccinated.
  3. It protects the health service. Sadly we have seen some health services across the world come close to breaking down in recent weeks. In the UK, we got pretty close in January. None of us want to see people get sick and die without the support of doctors and nurses.
  4. Even for young adults, Long Covid is a real risk. The vaccine helps stop the disease and protects you against long term symptoms.
  5. The vaccine does not discriminate. Unfortunately the disease is more prevalent in some ethnic groups, The vaccine however, is effective for all. In Scotland, the biggest challenge with vaccine take-up is amongst Polish and some Black communities. We need to protect them too.
  6. It gives our children a future. Not only does the vaccine for adults mean that fewer children will lose their parents, but it means that they can have normal lives at school and with their friends. There has been more than enough damage in the past year.
  7. Any side effects are well worth it. My wife had no real side effects at all. I had a pretty bad 24 hours, with fever and muscular ache. But a day later I was feeling fine. And the benefits far outweigh any issues. If I got Covid it would be so much worse. If anyone is worried about the risk of getting blood clots for instance, the most likely way of getting a clot that will kill you is to catch Covid.
  8. The vaccines have been properly tested. Some people are suggesting that because the vaccines were approved in months rather than years, there is more risk. This is not true. No corners were cut. Instead, literally billions of pounds were spent accelerating the testing.
  9. All the vaccines work. In the UK we have Pfizer and AstraZeneca with millions and millions of jags now given safely. The other approved vaccines are also rolling out effectively – Moderna, Sputnik, Sinovac. I am looking forward to the new French vaccine Valneva being approved because it is manufactured a couple of miles from where I live. The evidence I have seen is that against hospitalisation and death, they all protect equally well.
  10. It is better than another lockdown. I have written before about how fed up we are all getting with the restrictions. We have a clear route map out now, but it can only happen with the extensive vaccine rollout.

I apologise for writing a preachy blog. I also apologise for winding up those that really want the vaccine and have not yet been offered it. But this is important. If you have been offered the vaccine, please take it up. I respect people who choose not to take up the vaccine. But I think they are mistaken.

And if you are not sure, rather than listening to internet guff (even this blog!) please talk to a healthcare professional.