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Omicron: Prepare for the worst and hope for the best

Get the booster: A medical staff member prepares the Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine in California. The advent of the Omicron variant of the coronavirus makes the need for boosters even stronger. (AP Photo/Jae C. Hong, File)

David Burt, the Premier, rightly said last Friday that he will rule out nothing when planning how to deal with the Covid-19 pandemic.

Asked if it would be necessary to bring in tougher restrictions, Mr Burt said every leader who had had to deal with the pandemic could attest to its “complete unpredictability” and that policymakers had to take things “day by day, week by week, month by month”.

In this, Mr Burt is completely right.

The only predictable thing about Covid-19 is its unpredictability. It makes fools of those who make promises and teaches humility to those who think they can master an invisible virus.

Nonetheless, all leaders must make contingency plans based on the facts in front of them, even at the risk of being proven wrong later. And if Covid-19 has taught anything, it is that preparing for the worst while hoping for the best is the only really workable policy.

Mr Burt and Kim Wilson, the health minister, should heed this and as the fourth wave of Covid-19 recedes and the Omicron variant looms, now is the time to plan for the most likely probabilities.

A review of how the the fourth wave, which began to build around Cup Match and struck with a fatal vengeance in September and October, contains lessons for the future.

Loosening of restrictions in the summer, combined with flagrant disregard for the restrictions that were in place, laid the ground for the arrival of the Delta variant, which was more virulent than the original Covid-19. It was also more resistant to the available vaccines as well.

On Friday, the Government relaxed restrictions on social-distancing, and also eased rules for the schools. Some relaxation on travel restrictions will also take place, with quick result antigen tests being permitted for pre-arrival tests.

All of this will be welcome to those who chafe under existing restrictions. It will be doubly welcome to the embattled tourism and restaurant sectors, which have endured the heaviest financial battering in the business world as the recent gross domestic product figures show in shocking detail.

Nonetheless, threats abound. The so-called Delta plus variant has caused increases in infections in the Covid-19 in the UK and Europe. The more virulent Omicron variant has been identified and is now being seen in southern Africa, Europe and now North America. It is just a matter of time before it comes here. Covid-19 may be unpredictable, but this is a certainty that cannot be ignored.

At the same time, a wave of students along with returning residents and visiting holidaymakers will begin to descend on the island for Christmas. It seems likely that some will bring the Omicron variant with them as well as earlier Covid-19 types.

The loosening of restrictions at the same time is creating precisely the same recipe for disaster that the combination of the Delta variant and Cup Match did only five months ago.

It is true that little is yet known about the Omicron variant. But if it is anywhere close to being as lethal as Delta, Bermuda should exercise great caution. Early suggestions are that it is more virulent but the symptoms are less severe. But it is early days and much more information is needed. Only time will really tell how severe it may be.

It is also not known how resistant vaccines, with or without the booster, will be to the new variant. The chief executive of Moderna, maker of one of the vaccines, has said he cannot see how current vaccines would be as effective. If that turns out to be the case, it does not mean that the current vaccines and boosters are ineffective. It is reasonable to assume that vaccinated people will still have more resistance to infection and symptoms than the unvaccinated; it is a question of degree.

Nor should there by any suggestion that if people just follow the guidelines for social-distancing then everything will be fine. It has already been proven that this is an exercise in futility.

An irresponsible individual will leave isolation before receiving their test result and will go to a party, probably one in a private home where SafeKey protocols are not being observed. As a result, other vulnerable people will contract the virus and take it to their respective friends and families.

All of this begs the question of how Bermuda should tackle the Christmas season.

First, it is vital to learn as much as possible about the Omicron variant, then to act on the information provided.

Second, the Government should continue to push vaccinations, especially among younger people, and the booster. The last available figures for the vaccine booster were for November 20 and they showed that only 16.8 per cent of the population had had it. That is simply not good enough. The Government needs to mount a drive for higher boosters as a matter of urgency.

Third, people should continue to practise social-distancing. Bermuda has emerged from the fourth wave of the coronavirus but that does not mean a fifth wave is not coming, regardless of the variant. There is still a substantial number of people in the community without immunity and the island cannot afford to take risks.

Of course, people also need to work and to engage in social activities. Many people and businesses have still not recovered from the economic hammer blows of 2020 and it is an open question of whether the Government can afford to offer the same help that it did then.

But people should still exercise caution. They should continue to wear masks, especially indoors. They should practise good hand hygiene. And yes, they should take care with social gatherings - and avoid large ones.

For now, the Government is holding back on making any changes, and there is probably not the information available to do so. But that does not mean that people should not act in their own best interests.

After almost two years of the coronavirus, people have a good sense of what works and what does not. If everyone is careful, Bermuda can avoid the worst that the Omicron variant might offer.