Dr Raghib Ali is a Clinical Epidemiologist at the University of Cambridge and an Honorary Consultant in Acute Medicine at the Oxford University Hospitals NHS Trust.
The last few weeks have been an emotional rollercoaster. The month began with the euphoria of the first Covid vaccine being approved but ends with the dashed hopes of millions now living in Tier 4 and the wider fear of what impact this new variant of Covid will have on all of us.
The arrival of a safe and effective vaccine – much earlier than any of us had dared hope for – was a huge relief to all of us on the frontline that not only could we protect ourselves but, more importantly, our patients and those at highest risk in care homes and in the community.
But it will take months to vaccinate them all, and the recent increase in infections and hospital admissions is a stark reminder that the virus is certainly not beaten and we still have a long winter to get through.
So we need to protect those at highest risk in the coming months – and especially during the coming Christmas relaxation when most of us will be able to meet family and friends – in many cases after having not seen them for months. Although thankfully most of us are at low risk ourselves, about one in five people are at higher risk, either because of age or other risk factors like obesity and diabetes; heart disease and lung disease, and we can all play our part in helping them to stay safe through our behavior, and by following the rules and the guidance.
Of course we all wanted to spend time with our parents and grandparents, or children and grandchildren, over the Christmas break and it’s a huge disappointment to all of us now in Tier 4 that this will not be possible. But I am pleased that, for the majority of the country, they will still have the opportunity to make their own choice based on their personal circumstances and their specific situation, taking into account not just the risks of Covid but also the risk of being alone at this time for their mental health and wellbeing.
Many families are deciding to postpone celebrations with elderly relatives until the Spring when they are vaccinated, while for others the chance to enjoy the company of their loved ones, even for few hours, will be a lifeline – and particularly those for whom this Christmas may be their last.
I know from my own experience over the last year just how difficult these decisions can be.
My father was at extremely high risk because of his age and his underlying lung condition and getting Covid would have basically been a death sentence for him. And I knew I was at higher risk of passing it on to him when I was working on the frontline. And so I took all the precautions I could: only visiting him when I had been off the wards for two weeks, generally meeting outdoors, and being careful to maintain my distance and wear a mask indoors.
And although he was understandably afraid of being infected, he was always very keen for me to visit and at least have the chance to meet and talk and go for a walk together. And I know his mental and physical health would have really suffered if he hadn’t been able to see his children and grandchildren regularly. We were also very lucky to be able to celebrate a socially-distanced Eid and his 80th birthday with him over the summer.
Tragically he died suddenly and unexpectedly at home in October – not from coronavirus but from an unrelated cause – and of course I regret that I was unable to give him a hug or even hold his hand for the last few months of his life. But that is what he wanted. And I am very grateful for the time that I was able to spend with him in the weeks before he died, especially when so many others this year have not been able to do so.
So while we rightly look forward to enjoying this short time with family and friends, we must be careful too, especially with our elderly relatives, both in the coming days so we reduce our risk of getting infected, and when we meet them, so we reduce the risk of passing it on unknowingly. We should also remember those who live alone and do our best to make sure that no-one we know from our families, friends, or neighbours is left all alone over Christmas – and beyond. Even if we can’t meet them physically, at least we can give them a call or send them a card or a letter so they know that they are not forgotten.
This brief relaxation of rules for the majority of the UK also gives us the opportunity to demonstrate that we are able to make sensible decisions ourselves and take personal responsibility for protecting the vulnerable through voluntary changes to our behavior.
This will not only reduce their risk of getting Covid now and help the NHS to keep treating all its other equally important patients, but also show that we are capable of living responsibly with the virus and so enable compulsory restrictions – with all their associated harms – to be lifted in the coming months.
For countless families across the UK, including mine, 2020 has been the darkest of years with millions having suffered pain and loss, both from Covid itself and its wider impact. But the vaccines really do provide the light at the end of tunnel. They will save thousands of lives, not just from coronavirus but from all other causes by reducing fear, pressure on the NHS, and the harms of restrictions as they are able to be lifted.
This new variant is understandably causing concern but there is no evidence that vaccines will be less effective and even the four million doses due to arrive this year will have a very significant impact in reducing deaths and hospital admissions by vaccinating all over-85s.
No doubt, the months ahead are going to be more difficult than we may have hoped, and we will need to continue making sacrifices for the common good. But for the first time since this pandemic began, we can be genuinely optimistic that our lives will be getting back to normal in the Spring. Let’s not fall at the last hurdle.