We may not fully understand the long term impact of the Covid-19 pandemic for a decade, according to some of UCL’s leading Coronavirus experts.
Speaking during the live finale of our Coronavirus: The Whole Story podcast, Professor Dame Anne Johnson, Professor Deenan Pillay, Professor Susan Michie and Professor Andrew Hayward joined science writer and broadcaster Vivienne Parry OBE to look back at lessons learned and then forwards to the future.
Professor Johnson said: “In this country we have had a bad pandemic – we’ve had a very high death rate – but now we have a very high vaccination rate, so we’re not going to know for a decade or more what the real outcome of this terrible pandemic is going to be in the long term.”
Professor Pillay added: “This is not a question of whether Covid-19 will still be around (in a few years). I expect there will be circulation of this virus, so what I’m imagining is that in a year and in five years’ time we would have a different level of tolerance of constraints, whether it is infection control, the way we run our lives, or travel.
“I think there are some things that are not going back to normal, and I think that’s where we will be as long as these viruses are in the world. And I can imagine that these viruses will still be in the world in five years’ time.”
Professor Hayward said: “In the long term, five or ten years, it (Covid-19) will start to circulate with flu and it will become one of the other respiratory viruses that we have to contend with each year. It will continue to cause substantial mortality within clinically vulnerable and elderly populations, just as flu does, despite a vaccination programme.
“But it will become something that we don’t adapt our lives around and that’s my optimistic expectation. Of course, there are always worst-case scenarios, with the emergence of new strains that evade immunity or are more transmissible.”
Discussing tactics used by countries that have handled the pandemic well, such as Australia, New Zealand and countries in Southeast Asia, Professor Michie said those that imposed tough restrictions quickly have done best not only in terms of health but also in protecting the economy.
“A couple of things that they did very well was to ensure locally based test, trace and isolate systems that are trusted by local communities and delivered by local public health, and enacting effective border controls earlier on. Another was trusted leadership and the good communication strategies that go along with it.
“So there are things that we can learn… I would say, look overseas and learn the lessons.”
Talking about permanent changes the government could make, Professor Hayward said: “What this pandemic has really done is expose inequalities in a huge way and deepened those inequalities, both in health and education and also in wealth, so I really hope that there will be a stronger focus on these issues.”
Speaking about social divisions, Professor Michie said: “One of the problems is that, having taken away the legal requirements for people to engage in behaviour (such as mask wearing) … it sows seeds of division between those who are wearing masks and those who are not.”
She added: “There’s a degree of confusion about what people should be doing, where, when and why and all of this really undermines what is required for a very effective pandemic response, which is a collective effort.”
On this week’s so-called ‘Freedom Day’, Professor Johnson said: “It is a misnomer. I think for me the biggest word is uncertainty; there is still massive uncertainty about how this virus will continue to spread.”
“The future weeks will depend enormously on overall patterns of behaviour in the population.”
Professor Pillay agreed, saying: “Freedom Day is just completely misnamed. It actually reflects the failure of government and government communication, because ongoing transmission has a cost to it.
“Those who’ve been vaccinated may have waning immunity, we know that people are being reinfected after vaccines and, of course, every time there’s transmission there is a possibility for new variants to emerge.”
The live finale of the Coronavirus: The Whole Story podcast took place on Wednesday 21 July, introduced by UCL’s President & Provost Dr Michael Spence.
The live event will form part of the final episode of the Coronavirus: The Whole Story podcast series, which, over the last year, has featured over 120 UCL experts and has documented the pandemic week by week. With over 85,000 listens of the series worldwide, the last of its 53 episodes will be available to download from Monday 26 July.
Commenting on the series, host Vivienne Parry said: “As Professor Michie said during our live event, ‘the best pandemic is the one you don’t have’ because you’re prepared. I think this series of podcasts will firstly stand as a historical record of one extraordinary institution’s collaborative and wholehearted response to the virus. But it will also be of huge value to researchers and policymakers in thinking how to prevent and mitigate another pandemic.”
Thanking Vivienne Parry and all those who contributed to the series, UCL President and Provost Dr Michael Spence said: “Coronavirus, The Whole Story was created at the very beginning of the pandemic to explore the virus through a different lens each week, from what happens in intensive care to economic impacts and recovery.
“It particularly shows how important it is to have a cross disciplinary approach to these kinds of public health challenges. That kind of approach is really only possible at an effective university like UCL, one that’s able to very quickly bring together intellectual resources from right across the university to address the complex issues that our community is facing.”
Founder and Director of the UCL School for the Health of the Public, Professor Johnson is President of the UK Academic of Medical Sciences and an adviser to the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (SAGE) committee.
Pro-Vice-Provost International and Professor of Virology, Professor Pillay is an adviser to the Independent SAGE committee.
Behavioural science expert and regular commentator on coronavirus, Professor Michie is an adviser to the SAGE and Independent SAGE committees.
Director of the UCL Institute of Epidemiology and Healthcare, Professor Hayward is an adviser to the SAGE and Nervtag committees.