I have to get something off my chest. It feels odd even writing it, but I want to catch Covid.
I know it’s not what you’d expect the Health Editor of The Mail on Sunday to say, but it’s the truth.
Having thankfully avoided the virus (as far as I know) for almost two years, I’ve decided it’s time to get it over with.
The other day I had a bit of a scratchy throat when I woke up.
I actually felt a vague sense of disappointment when, firstly, it disappeared, and then a lateral flow test was negative.
Have I been going out of my way to get infected? No, of course not. That’d be… weird.
I wouldn’t suggest anyone does that. It’s just, I’m not going to do anything special to avoid it any more. Que sera sera and all that.
It’s not that I don’t take Covid seriously. I do. We were the first newspaper to reveal that thousands who died in the first wave of Covid had caught the virus while in hospital.
Having thankfully avoided the virus (as far as I know) for almost two years, I’ve decided it’s time to get it over with, says BARNEY CALMAN (pictured), health editor for the Mail on Sunday
Our GP columnist Dr Ellie Cannon campaigned for mask-wearing months before it was recommended by the Government, and we have backed the vaccine drive to the hilt.
I am well aware of Covid’s grim death toll – more than 160,000 in the UK and six million people worldwide.
And it should also go without saying I don’t enjoy the prospect of getting ill.
But it’s basically inevitable we will all catch Covid at some point, scientists increasingly agree.
It’s a matter of when, not if. And to be honest, I’d really like it to happen sooner rather than later.
Because there is a compelling scientific argument that, if you’ve been double-jabbed and boosted as eight in ten of us have been, now is probably the best time – or perhaps the least worst time – to get it.
Certainly, the Government has made all this easier for me: last week they moved to lift all remaining pandemic restrictions, publishing its Living With Covid plan.
Judging by the emotional reactions from some, you’d think they were suggesting going from full-on lockdown to nothing in one leap – which isn’t the case.
BARNEY CALMAN: Covid is still out there and it’s not going away – which is exactly why, rather than feel panicked, I think more people might benefit from adopting my mindset. (stock image)
BARNEY CALMAN: The truth is, unless you plan to stay at home for the foreseeable future, you are going to be exposed to the virus and you might well get infected. (stock image)
In fact, it’s a staged winding down of the measures that are still in place, as the current outbreak dissipates.
And many sensible health experts seem to agree that it’s the right thing to do at this stage.
But Covid is still out there and it’s not going away – which is exactly why, rather than feel panicked, I think more people might benefit from adopting my mindset.
Iceland’s government seems to be thinking along these lines, too: last week, as the nation moved to lift all their remaining Covid restrictions, including limits on social gatherings and the requirement to isolate, their minister of health, Willum Thor Thorsson, said they wanted ‘as many people as possible’ to be infected, to achieve ‘widespread societal resistance’.
Iceland, with a population of 345,000 people, is seeing an alarming rise in infections – an average of about 2,600 daily last week – despite 78 per cent of the population having been double-jabbed and boosted.
Thorsson said: ‘The vaccines are not enough, even though they provide good protection against serious illness.’
Their idea is that vaccination plus infection – what scientist call hybrid immunity – gives people the most comprehensive, long-lasting protection.
And if as many people as possible attain this, it may be just what’s needed to get on top of the outbreak.
Q&A: If I can’t get a test how will I know if I’ve got Covid? – and all your other latest pandemic-related queries
If I can’t get a test how will I know if I’ve got Covid?
As of April 1, free Covid tests will be available only for a small number of vulnerable people who develop bad symptoms and those in hospital with the virus.
Everyone else will have to buy them from pharmacies.
According to guidance from the Government, it is likely that you have Covid if you’re suffering one of the three official symptoms – a continuous cough, loss of smell and/or taste and a fever.
But experts say the Omicron variant can cause a whole range of other symptoms, most of which are not much different from a mild cold.
There’s little point testing for Covid every time you have a scratchy throat, say experts – it’s unlikely you will be infectious, so a lateral flow test won’t spot the virus.
Rapid, lateral flow tests are accurate at detecting Covid only if used when the person is at their most infectious.
‘But if the symptoms get worse and you become more coldy – usually two or three days later – it’s likely you’ve become infectious and a lateral flow should pick up the virus,’ says Professor Paul Hunter, public health expert at the University of East Anglia.
Even so, Prof Hunter says, for most people there is little point in knowing if you have Covid anyway.
He adds: ‘Now, 90 per cent of the population have some protection against severe illness. The consequences of people walking around with the virus and passing it on unknowingly are no longer serious for most people.’
Do I really have to self-isolate if I just feel a bit under the weather?
Officially, from April 1 the decision to self-isolate at home if you have Covid (either proven via a test or not) will be your choice rather than a legal obligation.
Public health officials advise that, similar to other respiratory illnesses such as flu, you should voluntarily stay at home if you don’t feel well, to stop you from infecting others. But scientists say this depends on the symptoms you have and when you have them.
‘If you wake up with a sore throat it’s probably a good idea to stay at home for the morning at least,’ says Dr Julian Tang, a virus expert at the University of Leicester.
‘If your symptoms don’t get worse, you’ll know it was just a sore throat, and it should be fine to go in to the office.
‘But if it gets worse, or you develop new symptoms, it’s likely to be Covid and you’ll be happy you didn’t go to work and infect your colleagues.’
Currently, people with Covid must isolate for five days – the average period of infectiousness. But Dr Tang says you can feel safe to leave isolation if you’re feeling better.
‘If you see an improvement in your symptoms from one day to the next, you shouldn’t rush back. But if the same happens the following day, it is unlikely you’re still carrying a large amount of virus that will infect others.’
If Test and Trace is being wound down, will we miss new variants?
No, the UK will still continue to screen for new, emerging variants of Covid-19.
Test and Trace is not the only way the UK keeps tabs on the level of virus in the population and any mutations.
A study conducted by the Office for National Statistics, which regularly distributes Covid tests to 240,000 homes, will continue. Covid test results from hospital patients will also continue to be logged, and roughly ten per cent of all positive cases will still be genetically sequenced to look for new variants.
But fewer tests among the general public means that spotting concerning new variants may take longer.
‘The fewer tests that people are doing, the less likely we are to spot a variant before it has had a chance to infect a large number of people,’ says Dr Penny Ward, visiting Professor in Pharmaceutical Medicine at King’s College London.
While there is no guarantee that future variants will be as mild as Omicron, Prof Hunter believes it is unlikely that any new variant will scupper the protection offered by the vaccine. He adds: ‘The vaccine is still very likely to protect against severe disease, because that’s been the case with every variant so far.’
Should I still wear a mask sometimes?
There are some places where mask-wearing is required, such as in GP practices and hospitals.
Everywhere else – such as public transport, shops and cinemas – masks are no longer required by law.
Health experts say people should consider wearing a mask if they are feeling unwell but have to leave the house.
Dr Tang says: ‘Some people can’t stay at home if they feel sick because of the nature of their work, or others may just be feeling slightly under the weather but have an event they don’t want to miss.
‘In these situations, wear a mask in crowded places which have little ventilation, such as on public transport.’
Studies have shown that mask-wearing is most effective for reducing spread in the local community when more than 80 per cent of the public are wearing one. Without the mandate, however, it is likely that the proportion of mask-wearers will dwindle, reducing the impact of wearing one for those around you.
Are some people still at risk from Covid?
Yes, an estimated three million Britons have serious health conditions that make the Covid vaccines less effective.
Despite restrictions on the public being lifted, this immunocompromised group – which includes people with blood cancer and organ transplant patients – is still considered to be vulnerable to Covid-19.
But Dr Raghib Ali, an epidemiology researcher at the University of Cambridge, says: ‘These changes are unlikely to significantly increase the risk to those who are most vulnerable to Covid.’
There are a number of reasons for this.
Experts believe infection rates aren’t likely to rise dramatically because the public will, when ill, continue to self-isolate, work remotely and socially distance – despite no longer being required to by law.
Data from the start of December showed that Britons cut social mixing when the Omicron wave began – even before the Plan B restrictions were implemented by the Government.
More than 90 per cent of respondents to a University of Bristol poll said that they voluntarily took precautions when cases started to rise in December.
‘When the Government removed Plan B in January, people thought everything would be dreadful with infections soaring,’ says Dr Ward.
‘But that didn’t happen. People continued to stay at home when they were unwell, be careful around vulnerable people and there was still a lot of remote working.
‘When people see high levels of infection in their area, they behave even more cautiously.’
Dr Ward adds that while Omicron is far milder than previous versions of Covid, ‘that doesn’t mean it is completely harmless to everyone – it will still make small numbers of the most vulnerable people very ill’.
If I am in a high-risk group, what should I do now?
Experts do not advise immunocompromised people to continue shielding, but they should take extra precautions. This includes wearing a well-fitting, ultra-protective mask in crowded places – such as an FFP2/3 mask, available online and at some high-street pharmacies.
‘Vulnerable people may also want to avoid indoor, crowded spaces like cinemas if the level of infection is particularly high in the local areas,’ says Dr Ward.
If high-risk people do become unwell and think it might be Covid, they should contact their GP for information about anti-viral medicines.
Vulnerable patients now have access to five of these drugs which, when taken soon after Covid symptoms develop, can cut the risk of hospitalisation and death by up to 88 per cent.
And they are advised to top up waning immunity by taking up the Government’s offer of a fourth vaccine dose, which is planned for the spring.
If I’m not eligible for another vaccine booster, will I become more vulnerable over time?
Yes – but there’s no need to panic.
Data published last week showed that while the booster is initially 90 per cent protective against serious Covid illness, this drops to 75 per cent after four months.
But the study included only over-75s, who lose immunity faster than younger people.
Professor Martin Hibberd, an infectious diseases expert at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, says: ‘I suspect that in the future we will all need boosters once a year, in the same way that we have an influenza booster each year. Hopefully that will start this coming autumn.’
Denmark, another highly jabbed nation, has already done something similar.
It dropped all Covid measures in late January, just as its Omicron wave hit.
Critics accused Danish ministers of being homicidal, but now infection rates are falling. At their peak, in the first two weeks of February, they were getting about 43,000 cases a day, and it’s now roughly half that.
It’s slightly too early to say, due to the lag between new infections, hospitalisations and deaths, but it looks like on the worst day there were around 40 deaths.
So are they doing the right thing?
Well, it’s clear that Covid immunity wanes quite rapidly – the vaccines, while marvellous at stopping people getting very ill, have only a temporary effect in reducing numbers of infections.
Studies have shown that after six months, levels of antibodies produced in response to two vaccine doses drop significantly.
Antibodies are specialised proteins mainly responsible for preventing bugs from taking hold in the body – a first-line defence.
They aren’t the be-all and end-all. There are other specialised cells – T cells and B cells – that fight the virus once we are actually ill.
These seem to still get produced in large numbers, even when antibody levels are low, which may offer some explanation as to why we saw increasing numbers of Covid infections with mild symptoms among the double and even triple-jabbed at the end of last year.
Boosters have a dramatic effect, pushing up antibody levels again and preventing infections.
But this is expected to be short-lived. After three months, immunity from a third dose begins to whittle away.
Although, again, researchers have pointed out that people remain protected against severe disease, this too may become weakened over time.
For these reasons, the over-75s and vulnerable groups in the UK are set to be offered a second booster in the coming months, and another in the autumn.
But what about the rest of us? The truth is, unless you plan to stay at home for the foreseeable future, you are going to be exposed to the virus and you might well get infected.
Omicron is wildly contagious – it is possibly the fastest-spreading virus in human history.
Measles is often held up as an example of an extremely transmissible virus – or at least it was.
One person with measles may be the source of 15 new infections over 12 days.
But one case of Omicron can potentially give rise to six others after four days, 36 cases after eight days and 216 cases after 12 days as it hops from person to person.
Infections are now declining, but the Office For National Statistics surveillance data suggests about one in 25 people have it in England.
It’s one in 20 in Scotland and one in 30 in Wales. In Northern Ireland, one in 14 people are positive.
The power of the vaccines is clear: at the peak of the most recent wave, in January, there were roughly 19,000 hospitalisations and 800 people admitted to intensive care every day for about a week.
This is a stark contrast to the January 2021 peak, when few people had even had a single vaccine dose and we were seeing almost 40,000 hospitalisations and almost 4,000 intensive care admissions daily.
The remarkable effect of the jabs has surpassed all expectations.
I’ve heard care home bosses say they have outbreaks now where no one even gets particularly ill.
But timing is key. If we catch it now, rather than wait ’til autumn, we’re more protected by the vaccines we’ve had so far.
As University College London epidemiologist Professor Irene Petersen explained: ‘Trying to delay exposure is likely to increase risk of severe illness as vaccines will wane.’
Earlier this month, Prof Petersen caused a stir on Twitter when she argued that now was the time to ‘speed the epidemic up’.
Speaking to me last week, she said: ‘At the start, restrictions were needed to prevent too many people from getting ill at the same time and swamping the NHS.
‘It also made sense to delay infections while we rolled out the vaccine.
‘But now we are in a different situation. As a society, we won’t benefit from delaying transmissions any further.’
Compelling studies show people who’ve been double-jabbed and then caught Covid have a high level of protection a year later.
There are also suggestions that hybrid immunity may even offer stronger protection against future variants.
Of course, this isn’t to suggest we all go out and have a Covid party to catch it.
But what the experts suggest is that the virus is still out there, and we shouldn’t be scared of that.
There are those who, despite vaccination, remain more vulnerable to Covid – people with immune conditions that mean the jabs don’t work as well.
They will need to take extra care, for some months to come (research shows many are still shielding).
But even they will ultimately benefit from people like me, who are less at risk, catching Covid, says Prof Petersen: ‘When no one is susceptible, due to high levels of immunity in the population, the virus won’t have anywhere left to go and will die out, and so people who are still vulnerable will be protected too.
‘I know it’s counterintuitive, and I’m not recommending people go out and deliberately catch Covid.
‘It’s a nasty disease and not ‘just a cold’. But people have been living with the mindset that they need to do whatever they can to avoid getting infected. And that needs to change.’
It’s important to point out, no one sensible is suggesting catching Covid is an alternative to vaccination.
There is good evidence to show natural infection alone provides very weak protection in the long term.
And Covid itself still poses just as much of a threat as it ever did to those who have not had a jab.
You just need to look at the current tragic situation in Hong Kong, where they’ve struggled to jab their elderly population, to see that.
It also has to be pointed out, unlikely as it is, Covid could still pose a threat to someone like me, aged 42 with no other conditions, my risk was low even before vaccination.
There are no guarantees, and I’ve seen first-hand how differently the virus can behave.
Three of my close colleagues on The Mail on Sunday’s Health desk have, at one point or other, tested positive, despite being vaccinated.
Both Deputy Health Editor Eve Simmons, 30, and our Health Reporter Ethan Ennals, 25, barely suffered so much as a sniffle.
Our writer Jo Macfarlane – who is the same age as me, was, in her own words, ‘floored’ by it.
She was infected during the Delta wave in the summer – having had her first two vaccine doses at roughly the same time as I did, in May and June.
Why did someone relatively young, fit and healthy feel so bad?
Would she have been worse off, if not for the vaccine? Perhaps.
It’s impossible to know for sure.
I do wonder, sometimes, why I’ve not caught Covid so far.
I’ve worn a mask where recommended, but I’ve also gone to the gym regularly – when they have been open – where no one ever seemed to wear one.
Being in an enclosed space with lots of people exercising, and breathing heavily is, according to research, the situation with the highest risk for Covid transmission.
I’ve also eaten out at restaurants and used public transport.
Perhaps the timing of my booster had an impact. I got my third dose at the start of December – which gave me a good couple of weeks to build high levels of antibodies, ready for the Omicron wave.
Ethan hadn’t been boosted when he caught it (but he is now), and Eve caught the virus a week and five days after her shot.
Just to check I wasn’t totally out on a limb, I told my retired oncologist mum, who’s 75, what I was planning to write this week.
She emailed me back: ‘I agree. I sort of envy my various and many friends who have caught it since Christmas, had a mild fever and sniffles for a few days and are now glowing with all sorts of useful antibodies!’
So there you have it. There’s also a chance that I’ve had Covid, but just didn’t know, although this is unlikely as we’ve had to test regularly to come into our office.
Or, perhaps I won’t ever get Covid.
As we’ve reported previously, a lucky minority have genetic characteristics that make them naturally ‘super immune’ to the virus.
But far more likely is that, quite simply, I’ve not yet been in the right place, at the right time yet.
Perhaps I ought to try a different gym class.