We may want to live with COVID, but does COVID want to live with us?
The decision in Westminster not to impose more restrictions in England over Christmas now looks like something of an inflection point for the country’s pandemic path.
The last two weeks have seen a hardening within government in the desire to avoid more curbs.
Now we see further smoke signals that give us an indication of the possible road ahead.
This weekend alone has seen talk of ending repeat mass vaccination, abandoning free rapid testing, and reducing self-isolation.
In tone and substance, the UK government appears to be plotting an exit route.
We’ve been here before though.
The first attempt in the summer of 2020 to “live without fear” – as the chancellor put it at the time – was quickly followed by the highest rate of COVID deaths across the whole pandemic.
UK tops 150,000 coronavirus-related deaths since start of pandemic
Last year also saw the UK tolerating high levels of cases with few restrictions. Ultimately the hugely infectious Omicron variant threw that strategy off course.
So what chance is there of this working at a third attempt?
From the outset, it’s important to say this outlook is not shared across the UK.
Leaders in Cardiff and Edinburgh seem set on a different approach – in the immediate future anyway – with the Welsh first minister saying the strategy in Westminster is not just out of step with the rest of the UK, but with the rest of Europe too.
Reducing isolation period would be ‘help’, but government has to be ‘careful’ – Zahawi
Then there is the split in scientific opinion, with experts saying a virus does not become endemic just because a government wants it to happen, and certainly not at a point when infections are running at their highest ever level.
But there are differences this time around that are giving hope to ministers, officials, and scientists.
Firstly the broader immune response triggered by three doses of vaccine certainly seems to be preventing significant increases in patients requiring intensive hospital treatment.
That may be helped by evidence that Omicron produces a less severe illness; something scientists say could pave the way for it to circulate in the general population without causing spikes in severe sickness.
But like many factors in this pandemic, timing will be key.
Currently, there’s little indication the science is in a place to support an immediate axing of free rapid tests or scaling back of isolation.
But right now, the fact these ideas are being floated at all is important enough; as it points to a government that wants to redefine the relationship we have with this virus and move us from avoidance to co-existence.