I'm more optimistic than at any point since pandemic began

Schoolchildren wearing Covid face masks

Children will be going back to school on Monday. - Credit: PA

I think there are grounds to feel more optimistic about the future than at any point since the pandemic hit a year ago.

There is now strong evidence that vaccination reduces the risk of serious illness and death and onward transmission. Overall vaccine supply has held up well, the NHS has excelled in vaccinating more than 20 million people and hesitancy has decreased as the vaccination programme has progressed.

This is not to say that there aren’t continuing concerns – including the possibility of new variants.

The council is working on its plans for surge testing should a case be detected locally. In the longer term, it is likely that we will need to be revaccinated periodically against the predominant strain of infection as we do for flu – but we can be confident that this is both scientifically possible and practical for the NHS to deliver.

Now, we must ensure that we avoid a further wave of infection before the full benefit of vaccination is achieved.

The government has committed to offering a first dose of vaccine to those who are most vulnerable to severe illness by the end of April. The great majority will develop protective immunity within three weeks. A second dose 12 weeks later will extend protection to more people and prolong its duration for all. So maximum protection of the vulnerable will not be achieved until some way into the summer.

In the meantime, we must all do our bit to keep infection rates low until the four steps set out in the government’s roadmap have been safely navigated.

The first of these steps is the return of face-to-face teaching in schools and colleges from Monday, March 8. Schools will reopen with appropriate social distancing arrangements; regular testing of staff and older pupils and the requirement that any cases and their close contacts isolate. To minimise the likelihood of spread from home into schools, adults in households with school age children will also be encouraged to test regularly.

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So we must prepare for a cautious return towards normality rather than a sudden relaxation of all controls. That way we can ensure that there isn’t a further crisis when the finishing line, in the form of a vaccinated population, is finally in sight.