Few would have imagined, a year ago, that we would still be affected by a small virus. The pandemic caused by SARS-CoV-2 has had far-reaching consequences with illness, deaths and major disruption globally, and it is not over. We are fortunate in the UK that the vaccine rollout has been successful and that the majority of adults are now vaccinated. However, the virus is still circulating and, although vaccination largely prevents serious disease and death, with about 90% effectiveness according to the recent large ONS study, it is less successful at preventing infection. A single vaccine dose gives about 30% protection from infection, whereas both doses provide around 50% protection from infection. Thus, vaccinated individuals can still become infected and can pass the virus on to others, although they will be infectious for shorter periods than unvaccinated people. Although we can still expect to see new infections in the community over the coming months, it is still the case that most people will be able to avoid infection.
The good news is that infections in our community are likely to be much less disruptive than previously. This is because many more people are now protected through vaccination, or because of some immunity from previous infection, and we are much better informed as to how to manage the pandemic. In the UK, the government relaxed various COVID restrictions from 19 July and altered the rules around self-isolation of contacts from 16 August. This was based on the success of vaccination in reducing the burden on the NHS. As a result, those who are fully vaccinated will no longer have to self-isolate if they are identified as close contacts of a case of COVID-19. This will allow much more freedom and should mean a much more normal Michaelmas term. We are still keen, however, that even if someone, as a contact, does not need to isolate because of their vaccination status, they get a PCR test to ensure they are not asymptomatically infected. In addition, regular use of lateral flow tests will also help to identify cases.
Despite the rules on social distancing having been relaxed, the Health Measures Advisory Group (HMAG) advice is that face coverings still have a role to play in reducing the spread of the virus within the University. Because we know that vaccinated individuals, if infected, can still pass the virus on to others, the use of face coverings indoors, especially in busy areas, will help to reduce the spread, as will continued respect for others’ personal space. The emphasis of this term’s health campaign will be around the themes of 'Be responsible, be considerate, and be safe.’
The best way to improve control of the pandemic is for as many people as possible to get vaccinated. Anybody over the age of 16 is now eligible for a vaccine, and access is very easy through the NHS. We know that vaccines are much safer than the consequences of infection, and we have seen the benefits to the NHS from having fewer cases to deal with. Working with our local NHS colleagues we are planning to have vaccination hubs in Oxford as the term starts so that students and staff needing their first or second jabs can get them easily. The more people who are vaccinated, the safer we all will be.
For further information on the University’s updated health guidance visit the coronavirus webpages.