Some Christmas cheer?



20 December 2021

The latest worrying variant of Covid-19 – Omicron – has been in the UK for less than a month, yet already it appears to have largely halted the tentative return to post-pandemic normality that individuals and businesses were beginning to enjoy.

This reversal of fortunes has (understandably) darkened the national mood. 

Yet take a step back from the immediate crisis and it’s quite possible to gain a more positive perspective on the United Kingdom’s ongoing battle with the pandemic.

As expected?

Firstly – and importantly – most businesses already expected that there would be some unavoidable bumps in the road to post-pandemic normality.   

In Howden’s September poll of senior HR, Payroll, and Finance professionals, an overwhelming majority (96%) indicated that they thought the return of at least some restrictions during the autumn and winter was likely (see this coverage from Personnel Today magazine).

So a Covid-19 resurgence is not really that much of a surprise.  What wasn’t so predictable though was the sheer speed of Omicron’s spread across the nation.  The new variant is a far more significant mutation than scientists expected, and it’s the pace of transmission that is currently the real challenge for the UK.

The scientific community is also struggling to catch up with the rapidity of new infections.  At present it’s very difficult to calculate what Omicron might mean in terms of the numbers likely to suffer serious illness and/or hospitalisations.  But we do sadly already know that – like previous variants – Omicron can cause death, with several already recorded in the United Kingdom at the time of writing.

Compared to last year?

It all feels rather like an unwanted repetition of Christmas 2020, and those depressing and bleak winter months we all endured at the start of this year.  And indeed it seems likely that there will be some difficult times immediately ahead.

Yet the reality is that much progress has been made during the last twelve months.  Indeed our starting position to tackle Omicron is arguably far better than it was when we faced the spread of the Alpha variant last December.

The benefits of vaccination

For this time last year the UK vaccination roll-out had only just begun, with the very first doses being administered only a couple of weeks before Christmas day.  The challenge of vaccinating the rest of the nation lay ahead, and seemed like a practical and logistical mountain to climb.

Whereas this year the vast majority of the nation is double – and many even treble – vaccinated, with enhanced plans to extend booster jabs to all eligible adults now well underway.

Another positive is that at least 92% of the UK population already has some Covid-19 antibodies in place (either via vaccination or previous exposure to the virus).  And whilst protection from acquiring a new Omicron infection without a booster is reported to be quite low, it does appear that two previous vaccinations will still act as a significant barrier to serious illness.  And preventing serious illness was the original aim of the vaccination programme anyway.      

It’s also worth noting that any new restrictions – such as the so-called “circuit breaker” being mooted in the media – should help reduce the speed of Omicron’s spread, providing a vital window for booster vaccinations to catch-up with the virus.

More good news

And the good news doesn’t stop there. 

The major vaccine providers appear confident that they can adapt their current vaccines to combat Omicron.  And by building on work already done this can be delivered in just three or four months, and once developed the manufacturing and distribution structure to get that new defence into arms is now well established.

And when infection can’t be avoided, it’s comforting to know that medical professionals now have a much better understanding of how to treat severe infections, and a growing toolkit of treatments that can be deployed to reduce the chances of serious complications too.  Indeed one has become available in the last 24 hours to the National Health Service.

Sensible decisions

We also have the personal and corporate learnings of the pandemic to help guide us. 

After the best part of two pandemic years we are all now used to mask-wearing, social distancing, and good ventilation.  Likewise we also know where risks are minimal, so outside activities and possibly even some inside meetings may be able to continue. 

And many businesses are now far better placed to deliver effective remote working than they were at the start of the pandemic.

Employee benefit support

Finally, but not least, a quick reminder that employee benefits become even more important in the midst of a health crisis. 

So whether its preventative measures such as remote GP appointments, apps to support mental and physical wellbeing, or accessing private medical treatments, there are tools that can support employees during any period of future restrictions. 

And valuable offerings such as Group Income Protection and Group Life Assurance are there to provide reassurance and protection when really needed too.

Some Christmas cheer?

So whilst Omicron remains a very real and present danger, we would perhaps all do well to recognise the progress that has been made since last Christmas. 

The reality is that COVID-19 isn’t going away this year, or probably for some years to come.  Yet as time passes we shall hopefully become far better at controlling Covid-19, and as a result the virus will be less able to dictate our lives, our business, and indeed our national mood.

So perhaps it might help us all to consider our cup of Christmas cheer to be half full rather than half empty? 

Stay safe, stay well, and a happy Christmas to you all.  See you in ‘22.

For more information on any of the above topics, please speak to your usual Howden Consultant in the first instance, or visit our website for other contact options.  

Published 20/12/21

Steve Herbert

Steve Herbert

Steve is Head of Benefits Strategy, Howden Employee Benefits & Wellbeing, and is an award-winning thought leader on Pensions, Employee Benefits, and Human Resources issues. He is occasionally accused of making Employee Benefits interesting.

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