As we attempt to live with Covid, a class of vulnerable people is emerging: the new excluded

Rejoice! For we are winning! On our way “back to normal”, as assorted government mouthpieces have been telling us. Rejoice! For, according to cabinet minister Nadhim Zahawi, we are on the road “from pandemic to endemic”. Rejoice again, I tell you, for Prime Minister Boris Johnson expects the UK to “get through” the latest surge in coronavirus cases.

For me, and for many others, the reality behind this rhetoric is very different. We are en route to new divisions atop an already fragmented society. For those of us on the wrong side of the divide, the choice is stark: illness, possibly terminal, likely chronic; or exclusion, with little hope of reprieve.

I first understood this last summer. We had, as a nation, managed our Covid levels down to near zero. Now that was cause for rejoicing. I was out and about once more, aware that even if the virus was not gone entirely, my chances of encountering it were vanishingly small. That mattered, because I am one of that minority – a million? Two million? Three? Do we even know how many? – that includes those with chronic conditions, as well as the clinically vulnerable and the immuno-compromised.

For us, however, “Freedom Day” in April this year was not a day of release, so much as cause for extra vigilance. I watched in growing alarm as, first came the pushback from those who believed “use your commonsense”, as the government advised, was license to cast all caution to the wind; then the official winding back of mask-wearing, social distancing and other precautionary measures. The Great Betrayal was underway.

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This puzzled me. Coronavirus was still with us. It didn’t require much by way of community spirit for people to carry on taking measures. As if! The problem was not the anti-vaxxers, though undoubtedly they impacted public policy. It was all the rest, for whom any restriction was restriction too far. Masks? Face nappies! We’re British, and we’re having none of that.

Worse, I have lost track now of the social media conversations in which someone in the vulnerable category dared express their own reservations, and received a thorough trolling for their efforts. Like the immuno-compromised individual who explained, politely, calmly, that carelessness about masks, vaccines, distance, could kill them. They were told to “stay home” and “stop whingeing”.

It was as though there were two settings: old normal, or nothing. There was – is – no in between. No acknowledgement that we are in another world, today, from the one we inhabited before March 2020. Or that circumstances change what is normal. It is as though medics exposed to the revolutionary discovery that hand washing saves lives, decided, instead, to carry on operating as they had done, with fatal effects on patients, for centuries. In fact, that is exactly what happened in the 19th century. Or as though a tourist, caught short in central London, decided to lower their trousers and defecate in the middle of Oxford Circus. Because that was “normal” for centuries; and everyone has a right to. It’s guaranteed by Magna Carta! Or something.

This refusal to move with the times is maladaptive in the extreme. It is the sign of a species in decline. Don’t even get me started on the global response to the oncoming climate catastrophe.

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The UK will carry on, despite the Johnsonian rhetoric. Coronavirus is not universally fatal. Not even close. This is not war: yet Johnson chose to opt for phrasing more common to generals weighing up how many casualties are “acceptable”. It was not just ridiculous, but highly inappropriate. Yet perhaps reflective of wider thinking. Because it seems now that a certain level of casualty is acceptable. Worse, we appear resigned to accepting that coronavirus is endemic. This is a bad move, for all sorts of big reasons.

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As Professor Christina Pagel, director of the Clinical Operational Research Unit at UCL, tweeted on 9 January: “If that [the current pattern] continues we’ll keep picking off the vulnerable, keep stressing a weakening NHS, create more chronic illness and mass disruption through people off sick every time.

“Lower quality of life for all of us. Uncertainty in being able to plan months ahead [because] of variants”.

That, of course, is at nation level. There will be others such as I – millions of us – who have been increasingly restricted in our movements ever since freedom day. Locked down. Or, as I increasingly think of it, “locked up” – in near permanence. The coronavulnerable: all vaxed up, and nowhere to go. Perhaps we will venture out in March: so many timid dormice, for whom “normal” is now social hibernation six months of the year, followed by cautious spring, and brief summer sun.

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We are the new excluded, and judging by the spin already abroad in 2022, that is not accident, but policy. Rejoice!


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