LONDON — Covid rules have been eased in many places across the world, including in England and parts of the U.S., with rules on mask wearing, social distancing and the number of people who can meet both indoors and outdoors being relaxed.
While this easing of measures is being cheered by many, particularly younger people after almost 16 months of on-off lockdowns, lots of others are feeling anxious about the changes, particularly those with underlying medical conditions and health concerns.
Almost all restrictions were lifted in England on Monday, which was dubbed "Freedom Day" (although it had been delayed for a month due to rising Covid cases as a result of the delta variant). Meanwhile, in the U.S., the CDC eased its Covid guidelines on masks for fully vaccinated people on May 13, saying they didn't need to use them or stay 6 feet apart, "except where required by federal, state, local, tribal, or territorial laws, rules, and regulations, including local business and workplace guidance."
Many experts have criticized these relaxing of rules, saying it comes at a time when the infection rate is extremely high, especially among the under-30s. Meanwhile, lots of individuals have expressed concern for their own safety and the safety of others, particularly those who may be clinically vulnerable such as cancer patients or disabled people.
Macmillan Cancer Support was one of many charities that criticized the move to open up, and is offering advice and a support line to anyone affected. It tweeted on Monday that "despite relaxing restrictions, 1 in 5 people with cancer in England feel unable to return to normal life today."
Tim Spector is a professor of genetic epidemiology at King's College London who runs the Zoe Covid Symptom study, an ongoing U.K.-based study which enables the public to enter their Covid symptoms on an app when enables scientists to then analyze the data.
On Monday, Spector and his team published seven tips to help people navigate their newfound freedoms. Here are their simple tips:
Be aware of personal space and personal choice, Spector said on Monday as "Freedom Day" dawned in England. "Some people might not be ready to hug, kiss, shake hands or reduce social distance. Don't assume what people are comfortable with. Instead, ask them and respect their personal choices."
This is particularly true of the choice to wear face masks, Spector noted, with the issue become something of a battleground in the U.K. and the U.S.
"With limited guidance from the government on where and when we should be wearing face covering, respect people's choices. If wearing a mask makes someone feel safer, then they have every right to continue wearing one," Spector said.
British Prime Minister Boris Johnson has called on people to use common sense and courtesy when it comes to masks, advising the wearing of them in crowded spaces. In the U.S. a number of states and local officials have reinstated rules on mask wearing.
Socializing outdoors remains one of the best ways to reduce transmission of Covid-19, experts note, and is much easier now the summer has arrived. In England and Wales, there are no longer rules limiting the number of people who can attend outdoor gatherings, but limits are still in place in Scotland and Northern Ireland.
"Fresh air means very small droplets and aerosol particles that contain infectious virus can't hang around and disperse quickly so open air spaces are the best places to be with friends and family," Spector said.
Airborne particles can multiply rapidly in crowded, badly ventilated places, like the subway or busy buses or trains.
So anywhere you're in a crowded confined space, Spector recommends that you continue to wear a face covering, if you are able to. Some airlines have already stated they'll continue to make masks mandatory.
Keeping basic, good hygiene has been one of main recommendations to the public throughout the Covid pandemic. Droplets of virus can be transferred from your hands to face so you should avoid touching your mouth and eyes if you've been out and haven't washed your hands in a while, Spector and the Zoe Covid study team noted.
Wash hands for 20 seconds with soap but if you don't have access to soap and water, then using any available hand sanitizer with a minimum of 60% alcohol should work.
Multiple studies are now showing that while the first dose of a standard Covid vaccine available in the U.K., Europe and the U.S. offers some protection against severe Covid infection, having both doses (most vaccines require two shots, apart from J&J's Janssen shot) dramatically increases the protection on offer.
For example, analysis from Public Health England released June 21 showed that two doses of the Pfizer-BioNTech or the Oxford-AstraZeneca Covid-19 vaccines are highly effective against hospitalization from the delta variant and further studies have corroborated this effectiveness. In June, Moderna said preliminary data showed its Covid-19 vaccine was protective against coronavirus variants too.
You could be easily forgiven for not knowing the main symptoms to look out for when it comes to Covid as government advice has changed during the public health crisis. Symptoms have also been updated as new variants have emerged.
The "classic" Covid symptoms were a persistent cough, loss of taste and smell, fatigue and a sore throat (and variations on this theme), but analysis by the Zoe Covid Study has identified new common symptoms.
The top symptoms taken from data reported in the Zoe Covid Study in the 30 days to July 14 are, after two doses of a vaccine:
- Runny nose
- Sore Throat
- Loss of smell
For the unvaccinated, the top 5 symptoms are:
- Sore Throat
- Runny Nose
- Persistent Cough
The Zoe Covid study team recommends that the British public keeps logging any symptoms with their ongoing study, arguing that it's more crucial than ever given that restrictions have been relaxed.
"By continuing to log your symptoms, your contributions can help us to stay at the forefront of discovering the current top symptoms indicating COVID infection pre and post-vaccine," it notes. The data can also help experts find out how effective the vaccines are working long-term and could also hepl determine whether or not booster vaccines may be a requirement in the fall.