This national lockdown should be our last. There is an urgent responsibility to spend the next month putting in place the tools that will allow us to live alongside this virus safely and freely through the winter.
As I have discovered talking to experts around the world, Covid-19 will be with us for some years.
The question is how we reduce its severity and impact to something more like the common flu, which itself kills 17,000 people in England each year.
There is no silver bullet, but a combination of vaccines, therapeutics, mass testing and world-class data collection will give us a substantial armoury with which to succeed.
TONY BLAIR: There is an urgent responsibility to spend the next month putting in place the tools that will allow us to live alongside this virus safely and freely through the winter
We call these ‘the four pillars’.
They’re the light at the end of the Covid tunnel — and how long that tunnel is depends on a series of decisions that must be taken now. Covid has already claimed at least 46,000 lives in the UK. Unmitigated, it threatens tens of thousands more.
And its tail — symptoms of extreme fatigue, brain fog and breathing difficulties that make up ‘long Covid’ — means risk extends beyond the elderly and the vulnerable.
Meanwhile, lockdowns have already cost the country £190billion in lost productivity, we have rising unemployment and there is a huge collateral health impact, with, for example, cancer referrals tumbling by 70 per cent while NHS waiting lists have soared.
My point is very simple: given this cost, we must do everything we can to speed up the introduction of the four pillars — especially those drugs that will save lives over the winter months and the vaccines which will reduce the impact of infection on NHS workers and those most at risk from the virus.
A combination of vaccines, therapeutics, mass testing and world-class data collection will give us a substantial armoury with which to succeed. Pictured: Scientist working on experimental vaccine against COVID-19
Lockdowns have already cost the country £190billion in lost productivity, we have rising unemployment and there is a huge collateral health impact. Pictured: People wear face masks in Oxford Street ahead of the lockdown on Thursday
Safety, of course, should never be compromised. No drug or vaccine, no matter how promising, should leave the door without being certified as 100 per cent safe. This requires rigorous trials and testing.
However, the good news is that the global science community, especially in Britain, has been working around the clock to expedite the testing of drugs and vaccines. We have gone through the different phases of validating a vaccine.
Phase one looks at safety; phase two considers efficacy — if a vaccine actually works; and finally, phase three trials, in which a much larger group of people participate.
As it stands, hundreds of thousands of people around the world have now participated in more than 50 trials, including the University of Oxford’s partnership with AstraZeneca involving 30,000 people receiving two jabs each; and there have been no reported serious side-effects.
Where trials have been paused because someone fell ill, each incident has been forensically examined and any links to the vaccine robustly disproved.
Moreover, these vaccines use tried and tested technologies — none of which has fallen at phase three for safety reasons in recent years. So, very soon we will have a comprehensive picture of safety.
A picture of how effective these jabs are then depends on a rolling review of data, and when a vaccine reaches a minimum level of ‘efficacy’ — the marker of how well it works — this should trigger its approval and rollout.
The question is: what is that minimum level? I would say that even 50 per cent efficacy will save lives, so we need not wait for more data to show it may be even higher.
A score of 50 per cent does not mean that a vaccine works in one out of every two people; it means that it would reduce the severity of infection by 50 per cent.
So, someone who would have a severe bout of Covid and face hospitalisation might have only a mild or moderate infection after vaccination.
For those who would only ever get a mild infection, or perhaps experience no symptoms at all — such as the young — it’s likely that they may not get infected at all.
If both safe and at least minimally effective, the vaccine could be given to NHS and care home staff in December, along with those most at risk from Covid in outbreak areas.
This would secure our hospitals in the difficult winter months and help protect those in our care homes. The remaining pillars — treatments, testing and data — merit the same speed and urgency in the months ahead.
I’m confident we’ll have them in place for spring, but the quicker they come online, the more lives and jobs they’ll save.
The UK is home to the best Covid drugs trial in the world. We should all be proud at how quickly the RECOVERY trial (Randomised Evaluation of Covid-19 Therapy) has been set up. It is a national trial to identify treatments beneficial to those hospitalised with confirmed or suspected Covid-19.
Its methodology — giving some patients actual drugs, others a placebo, and then tracking their progress — is the only way truly to understand how well a drug works.
This trial should be extended to every eligible patient, rather than the 10 per cent currently participating.
And again, our question shouldn’t be ‘how well’ a drug works but ‘if’ it works at all, provided that it is safe. As soon as safety is answered positively, drugs should at least be offered to patients most at risk.
Antibody cocktails have already saved lives in the U.S. in clinical trials, including REGN-COV2, which is also part of the RECOVERY trial here in the UK.
In testing, we must boost the supply of innovative tests and broaden testing to individuals wanting to take control of their Covid-19 status.
The mass testing pilot in Liverpool announced this week should be welcomed and extended to other regions as soon as possible. Settings for potential outbreaks, such as universities and schools, should be supported to introduce regular mass testing.
High-quality data is as important as the three previous pillars.
A system that connects the tests we take, the vaccines we receive and the drugs we’re given is vital if we’re to continue building our understanding of how and where the virus is spreading.
Over the coming months and years, this data will provide insights that will sharpen our response and underpin other effective measures, including health passports to reopen stadiums and return us to travel.
It’s important that we have a system in play now that can relate to existing NHS patient records while also being flexible enough to support new platforms and work across borders.
Together, these four pillars are mission critical. Speeding up approval and scaling manufacturing of vaccines and drugs must start now.
The logistics required to administer them will be without precedent and mark the biggest peacetime operation in our country’s history. This requires a step change in the current response.
I am not suggesting we set aside the views of experts: there may be good reasons for being cautious or doing things in a certain way.
But in this emergency, where every week lost means the loss of more lives and further economic damage, it is surely right to see if we cannot hasten the introduction of the things that can offer the only solutions to get us out of what is otherwise a ghastly cycle of lockdown, followed by easing, then further lockdown.
The greatest of gifts this Christmas would be hope. Hope that national lockdowns are not a way of life. Hope that we can beat back Covid-19. Hope that there is a light at the end of the tunnel.