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Covid cases set to hit new record as experts call for return of free testing and school air filtration systems

The i 11/07/2022 Tom Bawden

Covid cases are about to hit a new record after daily symptomatic infections reached 348,001 – just a few hundred below the previous high in March.

Cases have more than tripled in the last six weeks, largely because of the new Omicron subvariants BA.4 and BA.5, which are much better at overcoming immunity built up from vaccinations and prior infections.

But public and government behaviours are also playing a key role, with many acting as if the pandemic is over when that is far from the case, scientists say.

This has enabled cases to soar from 114,030 on 1 June to 348,001 on Saturday 9 July – barely a thousand daily infections below the record 349,011 set on 31 March, according to the ZOE Covid study app.

This is already the third wave the UK has seen this year, with a fourth, much bigger one, expected in the autumn.

Leading scientists told i that while the public cannot stay locked down forever, the current approach of minimal Covid restrictions needs to change if the country is to have any chance of limiting case numbers that could place the NHS under further pressure.

They recommend a wide range of measures, from encouraging the public to keep windows open to calling on the Government to invest in air filtration systems in schools.

Deepti Gurdasani, a clinical epidemiologist at Queen Mary University of London, said: “We clean the water for waterborne diseases so we don’t have to live with these. We need to do the same for Covid-19. We need investment into indoor air quality, and standards for this for workplaces, hospitals business and schools – with air cleaning where needed.”

She pointed out that, despite much discussion of introducing efficient HEPA air filtration devices in schools early in the pandemic, this has not happened.

She added: “Only 3 per cent of schools were deemed eligible and very few have been supplied with HEPA air filtration devices. The Department for Education uses thresholds for air quality (1,500 parts per million) that are significantly above international standards, which means it tolerates a higher risk of infection.

“We clearly need a long-term strategy. It is unsustainable to live with three waves occurring within 6 months, leading to significant impact in terms of long Covid, pressures on the NHS, deaths, and societal disruption.”

Professor Christina Pagel, of University College London, meanwhile, says that masks are key when coming into close contact with the public – especially high quality masks, such as FFP2 and FFP3 coverings.

Professor Pagel said: “I wear an FFP2 mask on public transport and in shops and during work meetings. And I make sure windows are open as much as possible if I’m inside, which is easier at the moment with this glorious weather.

“I try to socialise outdoors as much as possible – sitting outside in pubs or restaurants, having picnics in the park – and I’m as vaccinated as I can be. And, for these few weeks at least, I am avoiding crowded indoor places – so I’m not at the moment going to concerts, the theatre, indoor gyms.

“I’m also testing if I’m seeing lots of people or anyone at risk or if I have any cold and flu symptoms.

“But to stop this cycle happening over and over again, so that we can sustainably live with the Covid, we need the Government to do much more: bring back free testing for people, increase sick pay and encourage those with Covid or symptoms of Covid to stay home.

“And it needs to tackle labour shortages in care, health and education sector which is having problems with the highest levels of long covid taking people out of the work force.”

Steve Griffin, a virologist at Leeds University, says there is a need for much more vigilance generally.

“We are experiencing plateaus of infection between waves that are far higher than we ever had before last summer, simply due to the lack of mitigations in place,” he added.

“Leaving vaccines to deal with the pandemic alone simply isn’t working and we need to do more over the longer term to build resilience against such a high level of infections.

“This does not mean lockdowns but learning to pro-actively live with the virus, rather than passively ignoring and dismissing this infection, which remains a public health concern regardless of some wishes or personal choices,” he said.

Simon Williams of Swansea University, a researcher on Covid behaviours and public attitudes, added: “The problem is that the current strategy has taken all the learning out of ‘learning to live with Covid’.

Despite the rise in cases, the proportion of people social distancing or wearing masks in indoor public settings continues to fall.

“The Government has removed protections like free testing and financial self-isolation support, and little seems to have been done to fundamentally improve things which can help to reduce the impact of Covid in the long run.

“As individuals, we might think of things covid infection-control behaviours, wearing masks for example, like an umbrella – as something we take and use sometimes, when we need to, but not necessarily all the time.”

Professor Karl Friston, a virus modeller at University College London, added: “We are currently witnessing levels of prevalence that in the early stages of the pandemic would have been considered catastrophic. And yet, with the dismantling of surveillance systems, awareness is properly at its lowest.

“Put simply, the lessons learned in the past years are still in play: namely, self-isolating when infectious and avoiding of crowded, poorly ventilated, places.”

He added: “We would not abandon seat belts because the Department of Transport stopped reporting traffic accidents.”

Professor Lawrence Young, a virologist at Warwick University, said: “Nearly 20 per cent of the 75-plus age group have not had their spring booster jabs and, along with the clinically vulnerable, are at increased risk of severe disease.”

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