UK Covid cases are set to reach record levels next week and yet much of the public feel as though “life is back to normal”, a study has found.
Daily symptomatic infections were at 333,100 on Tuesday in the UK, almost three times higher than they were at the start of June, according to the ZOE Covid study app. The record is 349.0111.
After the summer holidays they are expected to almost double, climbing up to around 650,000, according to Tim Spector, the King’s College London professor who runs the app.
The increases have been driven by the rapid spread of the new Omicron subvariants BA.4 and BA.5which are much better at evading immunity built up from vaccination and prior infection than their predecessor BA.2.
And yet much of the UK population is under the impression that Covid is largely behind us and are behaving as such, which is allowing the virus to prosper, experts say.
The sample size of the study was quite small at 28 people but the research was in-depth which is in keeping with these kind of “qualitative” studies.
The participants were 18 and over and represented a range of gender and ethnic backgrounds across the UK. They participated in focus groups carried out from 15-30 June.
Scientists found a large part of the problem is the understandable fatigue many people feel more than two years into the pandemic, which is blunting their determination to tackle the virus.
But the lack of attention given to the issue by the Government – as well as media – are also playing a key role the prevailing, lacklustre, approach to Covid, with the ending of public briefings, the dropping of all restrictions and little mention of the pandemic from any part of the government, according to new research.
“Our study shows that many people feel as though things have returned to normal, and haven’t been thinking about Covid much, if at all, recently, Many in the public feel as though life is ‘back to normal’,” said Simon Williams, a psychologist at Swansea University.
“The way some in Government have been taking about ‘living with the virus’ in ‘post-pandemic’ UK, may have provided too much of a false sense of security. This is concerning, as we are currently in the middle of one wave, with new variants and new waves likely to emerge in autumn and winter.”
One participant in the study, a man in his 20s, said: “Everybody is trying to forget it now, like Covid never happened.”
Meanwhile, a woman in her 30s said: “I’m in that ‘what Covid? Did it even happen’space at the moment. Nobody is wearing masks, it’s like since those regulations are dropped you forgot that there is still a pandemic going on in the background.”
The study also found that people are less likely to be vigilant in their approach to Covid because of Partygate, particularly when it comes to following any guidance or rules should they be reintroduced in the autumn or winter.
“The Partygate controversy has severely dented many people’s confidence in the Government’s handling of the pandemic, as well, potentially their willingness to do things like wear masks or socially distance in the future, if required,” Dr Williams said.
“There are some worrying signs that in the future, if further guidance or even rules come back into play, people may not be as willing to comply this time, which of course will have impacts on transmissions, hospitalizations and ultimately NHS capacity.
“The challenge is to find a more balanced, sustainable way forward, where we can keep some protective behaviors, while looking to governments and organizations to provide broader supports – like good ventilation, hybrid working, free testing, and better sick pay.”
The study is published on the pre-print server Psyarxiv ahead of peer-review because of its timely nature.
Steve Griffin, a virologist at Leeds University, who was not involved in the study, lays the blame for accelerating Covid rates firmly at the door of the government and and its UK Health Security Agency (UKHSA).
“Aside from some NHS trusts reinstating masks when they never should have been removed, the complete inaction by the Government and UKHSA in response to this wave shows exactly how flawed the ‘living with’ strategy is,” he said.
“The total absence of proactive measures that might actually allow us all to go about life in a normal fashion is yet again causing hospitalizations to track cases worryingly quickly.
“Once again, the clinically vulnerable are at risk, particularly as a worrying number of people have stopped testing, wearing masks and/or are no longer isolating for periods sufficient to prevent transmission.
“The notion that ‘Covid is mild’ may well serve the Government narrative saying that we should ‘learn to live with’ the virus, but by omission of action – or indeed barely acknowledging this wave – the strategy amounts to little more than ignorance, and disregarding a considerable minority of the UK population numbering in millions.”
Dr Griffin says that while we do have effective Covid treatments, in the absence of other measures such as social distancing and mask wearing, they are not enough to prevent considerable harm by successive waves of the virus.
“The lack of investment in making our public spaces safer for all speaks volumes about attitudes that serve “most” people, and the emphasis on personal rather than population-scale risk constitutes an abandonment of public health. The Government is pretending that both our immunity and the virus are sufficiently stable to allow us to move past the pandemic – sadly, neither criterion are correct,” he says.
Nisreen Alwan, associate professor of public health at the University of Southampton, said: “Covid is still here and is infecting people in big numbers.
“We know that the earlier Omicron variants can cause long Covid so this is likely possible with the new variants too.
“The public health messages of encouraging simple mitigations like masks and allowing fresh air to flow in shared indoor spaces by opening windows and doors are still needed. However, fighting Covid is not just an individual responsibility because we are still in a pandemic and dealing with pandemics requires collective and coordinated government action with structural and welfare mitigations.”
What else the Swansea study found:
• A lack of media coverage of the pandemic, the war in Ukraine and the cost of living crisis were big factors in why people felt they weren’t thinking about Covid much anymore.
• There is a common perception that new (Omicron) variants are “milder” than previous variants, which also has reduced concern or worry over Covid.
• The use of face masks has been “denormalised”, with few reporting to wear one now, although many suggested they would if required to or if cases rose steeply.
• Some people suggest that they would only adopt more caution, for example wearing masks or socially distancing, if the situation became “serious”, for example if “people started dying again”.
• People’s willingness to test is high. However, knowing when to test, and willingness to buy tests was variable. Some suggest that it is difficult for them to distinguish between Covid and flu symptoms, and others suggest they would use “instinct” or “common sense” to know when to take a Covid test.
• The motivation to “protect the NHS” did not feature at all as a motivation to take actions to reduce transmission. People may likely to be motivated to – for example reduce mixing, wear masks, get boosted for more tangible or personal reasons, to ‘save Christmas’ or to protect vulnerable family members etc.
• There was a modest appetite for future booster jabs among those who had been triple-jabbed. However, a number suggested they would only likely have a further booster, if officially recommended or invited.