Maintaining vigilance against COVID-19 this winter and beyond
COVID-19 remains a public health threat – particularly in winter, says Dr Gillian Ellsbury, Pfizer's Vaccines & Antivirals Medical Director.
This content has been developed and paid for by Pfizer UK.
Although COVID-19 is no longer the global health emergency it once was,1 cases are increasing again this winter.2 So we should heed the comments made by Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, Director-General of the World Health Organization, when he warned recently that “the virus is still circulating, changing, and killing.”1
Of course, we all want to put the days of the pandemic behind us but we must be careful not to let our guard down. While the crisis period is over, the disease is still having a significant ongoing impact on the health service.3
We must not underestimate the seasonal burden of COVID-19
With COVID-19 here to stay, the overall burden of infectious respiratory disease is set to be an ongoing challenge. Beyond the human impact, this represents a sizeable problem for the NHS.
While the NHS was clearly struggling before the pandemic, the disruption caused by COVID-19, alongside repeated industrial action, is frustrating efforts to tackle the backlog.4 Latest published figures show that 6.64 million people were waiting for routine procedures in October 2023,5 with as many as 10,000 having waited for more than 18 months.6
We should take a flexible approach and adapt to the ‘changing face’ of COVID-19 in our ongoing response
The challenges across the health service remain significant, and although great strides have been made in managing the disease, this must not prompt us to conclude that COVID-19 is now ‘dealt with’.
New variants continue to emerge leading to surges in cases.7 If vaccination rates drop off considerably, and we fail to follow measures to reduce transmission, reduced population immunity could help to create the conditions for the virus to mutate and spread more easily.8 It’s therefore key that we use all available vaccines and treatments appropriately to help keep COVID-19 in check and protect the vulnerable.
During winter, when the NHS is under increased pressure, it is particularly important that we remain vigilant and ready to respond quickly to whatever situation we find ourselves in. While the health service is contending with a number of challenges, and so many other issues are vying for our attention, including the cost-of-living crisis, we must try and maintain focus to avoid inadvertently giving the virus the opportunity to regain a foothold. After everything we have been through over the past few years, we need to make sure we apply the lessons we have learnt and do whatever we can to mitigate the risks still posed by COVID-19.
Date of preparation: January 2024
- WHO. WHO Director-General's opening remarks at the media briefing – 10 January 2024. Available from: https://www.who.int/director-general/speeches/detail/who-director-general-s-opening-remarks-at-the-media-briefing---10-january-2024. [Last accessed: January 2024]
- GOV.UK. Winter Coronavirus (COVID-19) Infection Study: estimates of epidemiological characteristics, 21 December 2023. Available from: https://www.gov.uk/government/statistics/winter-coronavirus-covid-19-infection-study-estimates-of-epidemiological-characteristics-england-and-scotland-2023-to-2024/winter-coronavirus-covid-19-infection-study-estimates-of-epidemiological-characteristics-21-december-2023. [Last accessed: January 2024]
- NHSE. COVID-19 Hospital Activity, Weekly Admissions and Beds 11 January 2024. Available from: https://www.england.nhs.uk/statistics/statistical-work-areas/covid-19-hospital-activity/. [Last accessed: January 2024]
- The King’s Fund. What caused the UK’s elective care backlog, and how can we tackle it? Available from: https://www.kingsfund.org.uk/blog/2023/02/what-caused-uks-elective-care-backlog-how-can-we-tackle-it. [Last accessed: January 2024]
- NHSE. Covid backlog falls despite significant pressure across the NHS. Available from: https://bit.ly/3TT7HdV. [Last accessed: January 2024]
- GOV.UK. How we're tackling the NHS backlog. Available from: https://healthmedia.blog.gov.uk/2023/05/11/how-were-reducing-the-nhs-backlog/. [Last accessed: January 2024]
- WHO. Initial risk evaluation of JN.1. Available from: https://bit.ly/4aMh2Kz. [Last accessed: January 2024]
- WHO. The effects of virus variants on COVID-19 vaccines. Available from: https://www.who.int/news-room/feature-stories/detail/the-effects-of-virus-variants-on-covid-19-vaccines. [Last accessed: January 2024]
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