Covid etiquette is ambiguous in the absence of advice from the UK Health Security Agency.
During the pandemic you couldn’t move for public health advice. Stay at home, protect the NHS, wash your hands, sing happy birthday, stay 2m apart, don’t kiss granny, wear a mask, get vaccinated. Most conscientious, law abiding citizens followed the rules.
Today the world is back to normal. Yet Covid-19 remains rife. Infection and death rates spiked earlier in the month. And there is evidence that the three main variants currently circulating can evade immunity.
Dr Mark Faghy is an associate professor in respiratory physiology at the University of Derby and leads several research projects on the virus. He explains that we are not out of the woods yet.
“Evidence suggests the prevalent JN.1 variant escapes immunity built up from vaccinations. But most worrying is that we have three variants circulating simultaneously, eris, pirola and JN.1, and it seems immunity from one is not transferable, so you can have more than one infection in a very short period of time. You could be recovering from one strain and catch another straight after, which increases the risks of having a severe response,” says Faghy.
The last update from the UK Health Security Agency offering guidance for people with symptoms of Covid-19, or a positive test result for Covid-19, was in June 2022.
“As we learn to live safely with Covid-19, there are actions we can all take to help reduce the risk of catching Covid-19 and passing it on to others,” the guidance offered.
We’ve been left to fend for ourselves against the microscopic menace which could still have some nasty tricks up its sleeve. It’s time for a refresher in Covid etiquette.
What are the latest Covid symptoms?
If you have the following symptoms, according to the NHS, it is possible you have the disease, although keep in mind that many are similar to simply having a cold or flu:
a high temperature
a new, continuous cough or three or more coughing episodes in 24 hours
a loss or change to your sense of smell or taste
shortness of breath
feeling tired or exhausted
an aching body
a headache or a sore throat
a blocked or runny nose
loss of appetite
feeling sick or being sick
I think I’ve got Covid but feel fine – should I test?
You don’t have to, and you can no longer get free lateral flow tests from the NHS. But if you might be around vulnerable people, or if you would rather not infect others, it’s a good idea.
“The virus is still incredibly dangerous to people in at-risk categories,” says Faghy. “And some of the sub-variants we are seeing have a high level of transmissibility.”
I’ve got Covid but feel OK – should I go to work?
You can go to work even after testing positive for Covid and there is no legal obligation to tell your employer if you are infected. Government advice is wishy-washy. Those with infections are advised to “try to stay at home and avoid contact with other people”.
The NHS is more detailed, as George Sandhu, deputy pharmacy superintendent at Well Pharmacy explains. “If you’ve tested positive, current NHS guidelines are to avoid contact with other people for five days after your positive test. It is best to avoid contact with vulnerable people for 10 days after you take the test.”
I’ve got Covid but don’t feel unwell – do I really need to isolate?
There is no legal requirement to isolate or stay at home. However, if you want to avoid spreading the infection to others you should avoid close contact with people, particularly those who may be vulnerable.
My partner has Covid – do I really need to isolate too?
No. There is no requirement for either of you to isolate.
I’ve tested positive – should I see my vulnerable grandparents?
No. Covid-19 remains a serious risk for the elderly, particularly if they have health problems or a history of adverse responses to previous Covid infections.
Sandhu says: “It’s so important to avoid contact with vulnerable individuals if you have tested positive for Covid-19 to protect them from potential severe complications.”
I’ve got Covid – should I wear a mask out and about?
There is no mandate to wear a mask if you have a Covid infection. However, the virus is mainly spread through airborne droplets so if, out of a sense of civic duty, you want to take measures to protect others, wearing one can help stop the spread, particularly when indoors in a crowded place with poor ventilation. Studies show that wearing a mask in public is effective in reducing the spread of respiratory diseases.
My teenager has Covid – do they really need to stay off school?
Government advice says that Covid presents a low risk to children and young people and that children and young people with mild symptoms such as a runny nose, sore throat, or slight cough, who are otherwise well, can continue to go to school, college or childcare. Those who are unwell and have a high temperature should stay at home.
The NHS advises caution, as Sandhu explains: “Children and young people tend to be infectious to other people for less time than adults so three days at home is the current NHS recommendation, however it is best to avoid vulnerable people for 10 days after the positive covid test.”
If we don’t test for flu and colds, why do some people still test for Covid?
Thanks to test and trace messaging and habits during the pandemic, testing for Covid became normalised and tests are still available to buy in most pharmacies. This is not true for colds and flu. Colds are not seen as serious health problems.
“We often say, ‘it’s just a cold’. They are generally taken to be a mild illness that we recover from after a few days,” says Faghy. “But the ramifications of Covid and flu can be more serious and can in some cases result in death.”
There are three serious viruses going round Britain – which one do you have?