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Why is Boris self-isolating? He almost died from Covid in spring… and now his stupid rules have come back to bite him

Rob Lyons
Rob Lyons

Rob Lyons is a UK journalist specialising in science, environmental and health issues. He is the author of 'Panic on a Plate: How Society Developed an Eating Disorder'.

Rob Lyons is a UK journalist specialising in science, environmental and health issues. He is the author of 'Panic on a Plate: How Society Developed an Eating Disorder'.

Why is Boris self-isolating? He almost died from Covid in spring… and now his stupid rules have come back to bite him
Boris Johnson is almost certainly immune, after contracting a serious case early this year. The fact he’s now self-isolating after coming into contact with an MP who tested positive shows the quarantine rules’ pointless rigidity.

Many people will have been surprised to hear that the UK prime minister is self-isolating after coming into contact with a Conservative MP who has tested positive for Covid-19. Wasn’t there a huge fuss earlier this year about Johnson being close to being put on a ventilator while suffering a severe case of the disease? If so, why on earth is he self-isolating?

It’s tempting to think this might all be a ruse so Johnson can avoid other people for a fortnight after a tumultuous week of back-stabbing in Downing Street, including the departure of his senior adviser, Dominic Cummings. But, in truth, the PM would likely have preferred to get out there with a positive message about new policies to put the in-fighting behind him.

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Instead, he’s stuck with the bone-headed rules he put in place around self-isolation. There can be little doubt that he really did have Covid-19, so he’s almost certainly immune to it now. 

There have been documented examples of reinfection, most notably a case in Nevada reported last month in the Lancet. A man who tested positive for Covid-19 in April, suffering only mild symptoms, contracted a genetically distinct version of the virus in June. In his case, the second bout was significantly more serious, requiring hospitalisation and oxygen.

However, as an article in the New York Times noted in response, cases of reinfection are “vanishingly rare’’, amounting to perhaps five confirmed cases and another 20 under review. These have been mostly in people with compromised immune systems, such that the first bout of illness did not generate enough of an immune response to prevent a second infection. 

Of course, there may be many other cases of reinfection that have gone undocumented, but if it were anything other than a rarity, we would know by now. According to the Covid dashboard produced by Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine in the US, there have been 54 million cases of Covid-19 worldwide, yet just a couple of dozen examples of reinfection reported so far. For the vast majority of people, immunity proceeds as we would expect. If you’ve had Covid-19, you’re very likely to be immune to getting it again, at least in the short term.

Rather than taking a sensible and pragmatic approach to this, however, the UK health authorities demand that any contact with a Covid-positive person must be followed by isolation for up to two weeks. This is surely a case where the rules do more harm than good.

At the start of November, the head of the NHS in England, Sir Simon Stevens, reported that 30,000 NHS staff are currently isolating. Many of those will either have tested positive or will have been in contact with a positive case having not had Covid-19 themselves. But some of those staff members will already have contracted coronavirus, yet are being forced to isolate anyway. 

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Estimates of how many people in the UK have so far been infected vary, but, at the very least, this figure is around five million. In truth, it’s more likely to be closer to 10 million, and could be even more than that. Yet now we face the prospect that many of them will be asked to self-isolate all over again if they have contact with a positive case. This is a drain on the economy and exacerbates staff shortages, most worryingly in healthcare.

These inflexible rules are an important reason why the NHS’s much-vaunted and very expensive test, trace and isolate system isn’t working. Even if we could identify via testing all those who have Covid-19 – infection survey data suggests that only half of all cases are currently being identified – and we could then identify and contact all those who might have been infected by them, most people who are told to quarantine are not sticking to the rules.

There is simply not enough financial and practical support, so those who are supposed to be in quarantine bend and break the rules, because they need to earn money or because there are practical things they have to get done. More importantly still, faith in the system has been undermined by its rigidity. The fact that Johnson, who had a very public and serious case of Covid-19, is now being forced to isolate because, as he told Tory MPs, “the rules are the rules”, just illustrates the sheer stupidity of the situation. 

Lockdown sceptics have been accused of being ‘Covid deniers’ for querying just how widespread the disease is and asking questions about the accuracy of testing. But surely those demanding we stick to such strict rules are ‘immunity deniers’, who extrapolate from a tiny number of cases of reinfection or reports of declining antibodies to demand we comply with ludicrous, personalised lockdowns?

Let’s hope this daft situation, where the leader of a country is cut off from his ministers and advisers for the sake of ham-fisted rules, will encourage a serious rethink.

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The statements, views and opinions expressed in this column are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of RT.

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