But perhaps the most positive news of all came in Oxford, where the first of 510 volunteers received a modified cold virus from chimpanzees known as ChAdOx1 nCoV-19. That is a mouthful. Yet to those many experts who believe that only a successful vaccine will really beat this pandemic, it has a simpler name: hope.
Oddly, however, what such advances underline most is not how soon life may return to normal, but how far away that prospect is. Announcements about test and trace capability are a reminder that their weirdness will be standard for many months to come. And a vaccine – well that will not be ready, most think, before summer 2021 at the very earliest. The boss of Roche, among the world’s biggest pharma companies, thinks 18 months is “ambitious”.
The new normal
So we are forced to make the second great adjustment of this pandemic. The first, of course, was the realisation that this disease was to be taken deadly seriously, something which many of us failed to do – at Anfield and Cheltenham Festival and in concert venues and theatres across the country and no doubt in government too.
Perhaps that was understandable. We had also heard dim, dire warnings in 2002 and 2012 about far-off Sars and Mers – terrible diseases both – only to find life here blissfully unscathed. It took a while to swallow the truth that this time there was no dodging the bullet.
A month on, we now face another radical redrawing of everyday life, another time we are forced to cross the chasm between words that are easy to say and hear, and implications that are slow to dawn and hard to grasp.
It is this: the best we can do for the foreseeable future is manage Covid-19. We cannot beat it. We cannot cure it. We can barely treat it. We can only contain it and wait.
In this scenario all the government can do is merely adjust the dials on its no-win machine – finessing the balance of economic decline and deaths while tamping down infections across society as a whole.
What does that mean? It means that while the less vulnerable may shortly be released into a world of education and work and leisure that little resembles the one they left, the most vulnerable are on long-term lockdown.
It means that while the rest of us may be allowed out into a world without pubs and foreign travel, then periodically locked down again to prevent cases become clusters, and clusters becoming outbreaks, for those at high risk there is no way out – and little prospect of one.
Shielding the vulnerable
For this at risk group, for whom contracting the disease poses a serious risk of death, shielding remains the only option while the virus circulates among a population without herd immunity. As Scotland’s government put it its lockdown easing plan, published on Thursday: “continued shielding to protect those who are most at risk will almost certainly be required as restrictions are lifted”. The public will have to get used to the idea, one minister confided a few days ago, that “you can’t see Granny for 18 months”.
The vulnerable are already under far greater restrictions than the rest of us, having received letters or texts from the NHS advising they hide away for 12 weeks. Now that might as well be 12 months.
Nor is this a small group. Around 1.5m people are currently on the NHS “high and very high risk” register. Not all are old. Some have cystic fibrosis or severe asthma, or are undergoing chemotherapy, or on immunosuppression therapies, or are pregnant and have heart disease.
But the vast majority will be elderly. And, let us not forget, shielding rules are dramatic. There are three of them, but the last two are redundant because the first is so stringent: “Do not,” it states baldly, “leave your house.”