Although the data around Omicron is looking positive, it's not yet reliable and won't be until this seasonal period is truly over. Let's be united in not moving too quickly before we have more certainty on what we're dealing with.
I hope the next batch of figures on Omicron point to a downward trend on infection, hospitalisation and death. The government should not impose COVID-19-related restrictions on our freedoms unless there is a clear and obvious need based on protecting public health and the NHS.
Why do I need to start with these obvious words? Because an underlying assumption among statements made by some MPs and libertarian commentators is that the mainstream discourse is dominated by people who both revel in bad news and are using COVID-19 as a pretext for an agenda of expanding state control. If anyone can tell me who these people are I would be fascinated to know.
Today, The Times and The Telegraph are both headlining that Conservative backbenchers (apparently egged on by ministerial briefings) are opposing mandatory mask wearing in schools on the basis that the data on Omicron is clearly suggesting we are through the worst. This, seemingly wilfully, ignores two realities.
It is not hope that leads to action so much as action that leads to hope
The first is that in many parts of the health service, we are currently in a state of crisis. In the face of high levels of demand and staff absence some hospitals are having to declare a 'critical incident'. Some hospitals are making urgent calls to exhausted staff to give up rest days and leave to enable them to sustain core services. Many more hospitals are having to ban visitors to try to reduce the spread of infection. NHS England is continuing to plan for surge capacity. Community and social care services, which were already massively overstretched, are at breaking point. In many areas, ambulance services are unable to meet their target response times. Primary care is having to add caring for COVID-19 patients and trying to keep them out of hospitals to driving the booster programme and dealing with unprecedented underlying demand (driven in part by the millions of unwell people waiting for appointments and operations).
The second is that we surely won’t fully know what is going on in term of Omicron’s impact until later in the week and into next week. With Christmas, New Year and bank holidays, official data is volatile and unreliable. It is only five weeks since we first heard of this new variant, and it is only now starting to affect more older and more vulnerable people. Uncertainty abounds. For example, as far as I can tell, we have absolutely no idea whether Omicron is more or less likely than earlier variants to add to the huge numbers of people dealing with Long covid.
Instead of turning the science and policy on COVID-19 into a new terrain for the culture wars, let’s try to get through these next few weeks together
There is nothing wrong with optimism. On balance, I share the view that when Omicron has passed through the population we may move to an era when we live with COVID-19 without it disrupting our lives. As a parent, I desperately want my nine-year-old daughter to live a normal life with face-to-face schooling, playdays and holidays. But simply wanting something to happen is a poor alternative to trying to make it happen. It is not hope that leads to action so much as action that leads to hope.
So, over the coming days, instead of making optimism and complacency a kind of political virility symbol let’s focus on facts, let’s wait for the data, let’s listen to those trying to cope on the frontline. Most of all, instead of turning the science and policy on COVID-19 into a new terrain for the culture wars, let’s try to get through these next few weeks together.
Matthew Taylor is chief executive of the NHS Confederation. Follow Matthew and the NHS Confederation on Twitter @FRSAMatthew @nhsconfed