Photo of Professor David Paton, Nottingham

January 17, 2022, by lizst4

Five reasons why 2022 will be the year when we really do get back to normal

For ‘Blue Monday’ 2022, Professor David Paton finds reasons to be cheerful about data on the progress of the Covid-19 pandemic and sees signs of confidence for individuals and businesses.

It’s been a tough couple of years with much of our lives having been turned upside down due to Covid-19 itself but also the subsequent policy measures. If you have been watching the news over the past few weeks, you might be forgiven for thinking that things are never going to go back to normal. But look behind the headlines at the real data and you will find there are genuine grounds for looking forward with hope and optimism.

Here are five reasons why 2022 should be the year when we really get back to normal.

1 Infections are dropping

Holiday reporting and testing effects can make it tricky to understand infection trends from the official Government Dashboard data. As a result, I publish a daily data tracker which covers a wide range of indicators including survey data, calls to NHS as well as positive tests.

Looking at all of these indicators together, it is clear that infections have been falling nationally for about two weeks (longer in the case of London) and now at quite a fast pace.  We can never be 100% certain what is around the corner, but the data from South Africa, which was hit by Omicron earlier than the UK, suggests the latest wave is well and truly past its peak.

2 The modellers’ predictions have not come to fruition

Before Christmas, the Government were warned by their official modelling group, the Scientific Pandemic Influenze Group on Modelling (SPI-M-O), that if England did not introduce any more restrictions, we could expect to see hospital admissions rise to a minimum of 3,000 per day by mid-January, and that the number could plausibly reach as high as 10,000, nearly three times the peak last January.

In fact, daily admissions peaked about two weeks ago at an average of just over 2,000 per day.  Admissions in London have already dropped by over 25% from their peak.  The SPI-M-O predictions on the numbers of deaths were even more alarming and look likely to be out by even more.

The question of why the scientific modellers got it so wrong is one that will keep academic researchers in business for some time. One reason is that their models do not take into account voluntary behaviour change by individuals and business. When infections rise, people automatically adjust their behaviour to take fewer risks and this helps infection surges to be self-limiting even in the absence of mandatory restrictions.

Perhaps it is time for the Government to take more advice from economists and other social scientists, for whom analysing real world behavioural change is their bread and butter!

3 Omicron seems to be less severe

From an early stage, scientists in South Africa were telling the world that, although the new Omicron variant was particularly infectious, it also seemed to result in much less severe outcomes. Even as late as 15 December, the UK’s Chief Medical Officer was expressing scepticism about this claim but more recent data has confirmed it.

For example, despite a fairly big rise in Covid-related hospital admissions, England has seen little rise in the number of patients in ICU or even in mechanically ventilated beds. This should provide some confidence that Covid is moving towards becoming a disease that we can learn to live with rather than one demanding emergency and unprecedented Government interventions.

4 The vaccines

Yes, it is true that vaccination seems to offer limited protection against the infection from Omicron but the latest data suggests it still provides reasonable protection against serious illness. In other words, even if there is little public health benefit from a policy of vaccinating the whole population, vaccination of the elderly and most vulnerable can help prevent surges in infections leading to unsustainable levels of hospitalisations.

5 Politicians are becoming more realistic about the costs of restrictions

We have known for some time that many of the measures put in place to deal with Covid are less effective than is commonly thought. But there are signs that evidence showing the consequences of lockdowns and restrictions can outweigh any benefits is beginning to filter through to politicians.

Oddly, devolution may have helped this process. The Scottish, Welsh and Northern Ireland Governments all implemented additional restrictions on the hospitality sector after Christmas, while England did not introduce any new measures. This has provided us with a natural comparison of the impact of restrictions.

From the data we have so far, it seems as if infections peaked at about the same time in all four nations and are now also steadily decreasing across the UK, irrespective of the different regulations in place. This should give politicians everywhere more confidence that we can cope with future surges and new variants without resorting to business closures and other restrictions.

A return to something close to normal in 2022

Covid-19 remains a serious health issue which has tragically taken the lives of many. The disease is not going away, but hopefully we are gradually moving to a situation in which it becomes just one of many risks and health challenges we face. And in turn, the approach we take to the virus will change from one of mandatory restrictions, lockdowns and business closures and back to a traditional public health approach focusing on advice, guidance and voluntary compliance.

No doubt there will still be bumps along the way, but we can have increasing confidence that 2022 will see the return of something close to a normal way of life for us as individuals, for universities and for the world of business.

Professor David Paton is Chair of Industrial Economics at Nottingham University Business School. The views expressed here are his own.

You can find his Twitter feed, which provides daily updates and analysis of Covid data at @CricketWyvern.


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