It was a single line from that piece that raised the ire of scientists. “We are going to have to learn to accept the existence of Covid and find ways to cope with it – just as we already do with flu.”
Professor Devi Sridhar, chair of global public health at Edinburgh University, disagreed. She tweeted in response: “New UK health minister saying COVID is like flu. Same position 18 months into the pandemic… I don’t understand this analogy.”
Another academic, Stephen Reicher, a social psychology professor at the University of St Andrews, said: “It is frightening to have a ‘Health’ Secretary who still thinks Covid is flu.”
The disagreement attracted press coverage in the Mirror, Metro, The Guardian and The National.
But was Javid right?
The Health Secretary was both right and wrong in his statement.
On the one hand, Sajid Javid did not directly compare Covid-19 to influenza as some of the scientists accused him of.
Javid is right that Covid-19 will be with us for years to come. Throughout the pandemic, there have been several warnings from the scientific community that the coronavirus will likely need annual vaccinations to boost immunity and counter mutations and variants. Just as the NHS does every year with flu.
It was even underlined as Prime Minister Boris Johnson announced all Covid-19 restrictions would be lifted on July 19 in England.
In his response to the news, Professor Keith Neal, emeritus professor of the epidemiology of infectious diseases at the University of Nottingham, said: “Covid will be around for years to come so we need to learn to live with it.”
So in this sense, Javid is correct and it appears the scientists have misinterpreted his point.
However, there is possibly good reason why. There has been a common narrative on social media among Covid deniers who dismiss the virus as merely flu. Scientists and fact checkers have been trying to combat this narrative throughout the pandemic.
Javid’s association between the two does little to help that battle.
While both are respiratory illnesses, Covid-19 is caused by a strain of a coronavirus, whereas a completely different virus causes influenza.
There is also a key difference between the impact to the two viruses have had on the population, both in the UK and abroad, over the last year.
As a Lancet report titled ‘Covid-19 is not influenza’ reported in March 2021, “influenza never exceeded 4.5 per cent of the total national intensive care unit (ICU) bed capacity in Denmark”.
In the UK, the Health Foundation reported that around 30,000 people die from flu and pneumonia in a bad flu season, with a loss of around 250,000 life years. This is a sixth of the life years lost to Covid-19.
So in this sense, the scientists are correct.
It is clear flu and Covid-19 are completely different beasts when it comes to public health and that should continue to be underline to the public.
However, it also true that neither is going anywhere anytime soon and continued vaccination against both is necessary.
30,000 people die from flu and pneumonia in a bad flu season, with a loss of around 250,000 life years. A sixth of the life years lost to Covid-19
1.5 million potential years of life were lost in the UK to Covid-19 deaths during the first year of the pandemic. On average, each of the 146,000 people who died with COVID-19 lost 10.2 years of life. (Health Foundation)