One in thirty people in London now have COVID-19 and, until this week’s lockdown announcement, could have been unknowingly spreading the disease among their colleagues, school friends, fellow commuters, shoppers or gym goers.
Even after a year of horrendous shocks, the latest figures as we begin 2021 are terrifying. There are now more patients in hospital with COVID-19 than at any other point since the virus was first identified.
And although testing capacity is far higher than during most of 2019, that does not explain how the virus could rampage so quickly across the country.
The new variant is certainly the critical factor in the escalation of the pandemic but it is not the only reason we have been plunged into a third lockdown.
All too often the debate has been divided between two opposing views: saving lives or saving the economy. What seems clearer now is locking down early and hard, and attempting a ‘COVID zero’ approach – whereby the virus is eliminated rather than simply ‘suppressed’ to a lower level – can do both.
Instead of trying completely to drive out the virus, which the government did not think possible, it focused on bringing levels down.
But community transmission remained far too high at the end of the first lockdown, and was soon out of control in huge areas of the country once the tier system was in force.
A second national lockdown had an impact but that was soon lost once things reopened.
In the meantime, businesses have had the costs of being open, then closed, then open again. That’s before we even get into the schools debacle.
We now have the worst of all worlds: spiralling infections, and a stunted economy with rising unemployment after successive government U-turns.
Just because someone survives COVID it does not mean they are well or even fit to work. Even for the young and healthy it can be a debilitating disease.
In one recent study of more than 3,000 long COVID sufferers, a quarter had been unable to return to work since months later.
The improvements in treatment and care and the vaccine hope on the horizon can help us get through the next few weeks.
But perhaps it is time to stop seeing the debate about the virus as a contest between the economy and saving lives – and instead focus on protecting both.