The changing face of COVID-19 and what it means for Oxford

As we move into the second half of Hilary term, we would like to take this opportunity to reflect on the current COVID situation and consider what this means for the University community.

The ongoing pandemic

The COVID pandemic has changed but it is not over. Indeed, there are more infections in Oxford and the University than there have ever been but they may be plateauing.  The infections are mostly in the younger members of the community – school children and students, but also in their families. The Omicron variant is highly infectious and its sibling “BA.2” is around 30% more so. Vaccinated people can still be infected. Most people with Omicron infection are asymptomatic so it is not surprising numbers of infections are up – restrictions have been relaxed, it is winter and the young people mix more than the older. 

The infection can seem mild but it is not always so. Even a few days of sore throat, fever, headache, tiredness and sniffles is irksome. Some people will develop long COVID.  Vulnerable people can get very ill and require hospitalisation. Our local hospital has around 40 in-patients suffering with COVID-19 (the equivalent of around two wards). These are beds and nurses who cannot do what they are usually there for.

Improving outlook and the return to ‘normal’
At any one time there are fewer than five cases in the intensive care unit. This is completely different from last year. This is mostly the benefit of the vaccine programme, including the boosters, but also the welcome change to the virus making it 60% less likely to cause severe disease. It is disappointing that vaccines do not reliably prevent infection and their potency wanes; however, they have a lasting effect reducing the risk of severe illness, hospitalisation and death.  People are still dying of COVID – mostly, but not exclusively, the medically vulnerable and the unvaccinated - 60% of the ITU cases are unvaccinated.

We all want to get back to normal, and staff should be reassured that the workplace is an environment associated with a low risk of COVID-19 infection; and that transmission of infection is largely in social gatherings and living spaces. This means the move to BCP Stage 1 presents low risks to staff.

The importance of acting responsibly
However, this is not a normal seasonal virus, so we need to behave differently until it has been suppressed, and apart from sparing colleagues the need to isolate, take time off work and have a 'dose of COVID', we must bear in mind the vulnerable who may not shake the infection off. We are therefore asking those returning to on-site working to continue being careful and considerate.

If you think you may have COVID, take an LFD test and, if positive, stay at home and steer clear of other people. Adhere to the rules and return to normal activities when the LFD returns two negative results after Day 5. Contacts can reassure their colleagues by taking daily LFD tests. Please wear a face covering in crowded places. Twice weekly LFD testing will pick up some asymptomatic cases, further reducing the risk of transmission. It goes without saying that getting vaccinated and boosted is the single most effective measure.

We commend these actions, each contributing gains, as part of the move to get back to full University life with more confidence.


Professor Christopher Winearls FRCP Clinical Director EAS

Professor Chris Conlon FRCP Chairman Health Measures Advisory Group

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