It was going to be great: a trip to Bristol to visit an old friend, on the hottest weekend of the year so far, to watch the most eagerly awaited football game of the year – England’s first match in the Euros.
The plan was mapped out weeks in advance. I’d already decided which England shirt I was going to wear (like most football-mad British men, I have several, each more worn and ragged than the last).
What could possibly go wrong?
‘You must now stay at home and self-isolate for ten days from the date of your last contact with them.’
Almost simultaneously I got another text from a friend who I’d spent time with last Saturday at a birthday party in a South London park.
home alone: Ethan Ennals is spending this weekend in his flat, watching the Euros on his TV
She’d tested positive for Covid-19, it read, and I should expect to hear from Government tracers shortly, given that I was one of her most recent contacts.
My heart sank. There would be no catching up with friends over a pint of extra-strong West Country cider, and no sun-soaked scenes of glory (or tragedy) in a pub garden, watching England v Croatia.
I’ll admit, I was frustrated, angry, even. Not for a second did I blame my friend. She was just unlucky.
Contrary to popular belief, we twentysomethings – or at least the ones I know – have been nothing but vigilant and responsible when it comes to taking precautions against spreading the virus.
We wear our masks. Even when the Government permitted socialising indoors, my friends and I continued to meet in gardens and pubs – just to be safe.
But what really annoyed me was that I knew there was no way I could have the virus.
Just that morning I’d taken the first of my twice-weekly rapid Covid tests offered by my workplace. The results had come back, as they have done consistently over the past year, negative.
Also, I’ve been fully vaccinated. I received my second shot two weeks ago, which means my body will have generated plenty of Covid-fighting antibodies.
The reason I’d been double-jabbed is because I’m volunteering for a trial of an experimental jab.
It’s a French vaccine, Valneva, which the Government has said it hopes to have approved by the autumn for use in booster shots.
Unlike other shots, which use genetic fragments of the Covid virus, the Valneva jab contains the whole, inactivated virus, much like flu and hepatitis A vaccines.
At 11.15am on Wednesday, Ethan’s phone buzzed: ‘NHS Test and Trace has identified you as a contact of someone who has recently tested positive for Covid-19,’ read the text message
As it has more parts of the virus for the immune system to learn from, experts hope it’ll be more variant-proof than the others.
So why was I being forced to spend my weekend staring out of my flat window, watching the big match alone?
I have been aware of the lunacy of this situation for a while now – I was among one of the first journalists to highlight it, in this newspaper.
Last month we asked our readers if they’d been asked to self-isolate, despite being fully vaccinated. We received a flurry of responses.
‘It made me wonder why I bothered getting the jab,’ wrote one woman, Moira Bygrove, whose text from NHS Test and Trace had scuppered her long-awaited reunion with her new grandchild.
For Moira, the situation was made all the more devastating by the fact she’d spent much of the past year shielding, kept apart from her loved-ones.
YOUR AMAZING BODY
Can’t remember your neighbour’s name?
Stand in the same place and exact position as when you first met and it might come back to you.
Ability to recall forgotten memories is boosted if the body is in the same place – and shape – as it was when the event took place.
Can’t remember your neighbour’s name?
A 2007 study tracked details of childhood memories, including what position their body was in at the time.
A decade later, when asked to recall the events, researchers found they remembered faster when their body mirrored the same pose struck years before.
Another, Phil Norman, wrote: ‘At the start of the pandemic I downloaded the NHS Covid-19 app because I felt it was the right thing to do. On June 1, out of the blue, I received the dreaded alert that someone I had been near to had tested positive and to isolate.
‘I am 68 with no symptoms and had my second AZ vaccination on April 13. The instructions seem to ignore my vaccination status.
‘I now regret having downloaded the app and am seriously considering pressing the uninstall button.’
And another email simply said: ‘Today I have been told to self-isolate. I’ve had both jabs. Where will it end?’
A big part of me felt the same – especially having spoken to scientists about why the strategy to keep telling the vaccinated to isolate is based on outdated evidence.
The day I was ‘pinged’, I went to a testing centre for a definitive PCR test. Obviously, I was negative.
Soon after I got a call from a contact tracer. The friendly voice asked how I was doing and whether I’d need any financial support.
I asked if I still had to isolate for the whole ten days, despite being fully vaccinated.
‘The vaccines stop you getting ill,’ she replied – she was ready for this question and clearly had a script. ‘But you can still catch Covid after you’ve been vaccinated and pass it on.’
Really? At the beginning of the year the effect of the vaccines on transmission was still unclear, justifying this stance. But now, as developed nations storm ahead with their vaccination programmes, a more optimistic picture is emerging.
One US study, published in March, found a 90 per cent reduction in asymptomatic infections in fully vaccinated health workers.
Meanwhile, data from Israel reveals that, in the small number of vaccinated people who become infected and carry the virus, the amount of viral cells in their nose and throat is a quarter of those in people who are not vaccinated.
Prof Monica Gandhi, a virus expert at the University of California, in San Francisco, says this means ‘the person is no longer infectious’.
There are also fears that the new Indian variant, which is driving a steep rise in infections, may be resistant to vaccines. But a study of 44,000 fully vaccinated NHS workers found no increase in positive Covid tests since the variant arrived in the UK.
Such is the confidence in the vaccine, other countries have created new rules exempting fully vaccinated people from coronavirus restrictions. In early May, the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) in the US confirmed fully vaccinated people didn’t have to quarantine, or seek a test, after coming into contact with someone with the virus.
They also don’t have to isolate when returning from abroad. The policy is also thought to be an incentive, encouraging vaccine-hesitant Americans to take up the jab.
In Ireland, health officials have launched a ‘vaccine bonus scheme’, which means that fully vaccinated people no longer need to wear masks indoors or socially distance. The government is reportedly considering scrapping self-isolation and quarantine for them, too.
Prof Gandhi warns that not releasing double-jabbed Britons from isolation will do more harm than good.
‘The risks associated with telling every person who might have been near someone with Covid to isolate – such as mental health and financial implications – are far greater than the risk they might pass the virus on,’ she says.
‘I think the UK system should be revisited.’
There are experts who argue that erring on the side of caution is the right thing to do at present.
Virologist Prof Lawrence Young, at Warwick University says: ‘No vaccine is 100 per cent effective, there is always a chance, even a small one, that a vaccinated person could become infected and then pass on the virus.
‘With the virus rapidly spreading through the younger age groups, we need to do everything we can to limit it so it doesn’t reach older people for whom the vaccine may not have worked.
‘Using Test and Trace to isolate people who may have potentially been infected is a key tool.’
The rise in Covid cases is primarily in the under-29s – the last age group to be offered a vaccine.
Speedy take-up in twentysomethings over the next month will likely have a significant impact on restricting the spread of the virus – and, crucially, if take-up is slow or, worse, low, it could scupper our chances of ‘Freedom Day’ happening at all.
Unfortunately, my age group has a vaccine-hesitancy problem.
Despite the heart-warming scenes of young people queuing to get their first jab, one in eight 16-29-year-old Britons are hesitant about getting a vaccine, according to the Office for National Statistics. Would telling them the jab was get-out-of-quarantine-free card help change their minds?
Almost certainly, says Prof Gandhi. ‘Incentivising vaccination has worked well in the US. When the CDC guidance on isolation and mask wearing came out, we saw vaccine uptake increase.’
Some arguing against removing self-isolation for the fully vaccinated say we don’t know how long the jabs grant immunity. It’s coming up to six months since the first cohort of Britons received their first jab.
Early studies have suggested that, at this point, the protective antibodies generated by the jab might begin to wane.
But scientists point out this is what the booster jabs, which the Government hopes to roll out in the autumn, are for.
Others, like Prof Gandhi, say immunity will be long-lasting. She says: ‘Antibodies are just one way of measuring immunity. We also fight off disease with other fighter cells, called T-cells.’
Like antibodies, T-cells are created by the immune system to fend off invaders. But while antibodies stop viral cells from entering the body, T-cells attack and destroy them. And, like antibodies, Covid vaccines also prompt the body to produce these T-cells.
‘T-cells will wane at a slower rate than antibodies,’ says Prof Gandhi, ‘so immunity is going to last a long time.’
Any change to the policy will come too late for me. In a further twist, this isn’t the only way I’ve fallen foul of the Government’s lack of joined-up thinking.
When I signed up for the Valneva trial, I wasn’t informed that, as itwasn’t approved yet, my vaccine status wouldn’t be added to the NHS app.
This means, were the Government to implement vaccine passports, or foreign countries were to require proof of vaccination to enter, I would have nothing that showed I had been vaccinated. I wasn’t the only one.
Along with the 4,000 participants on the Valneva trial, another 15,000 Britons on the Novavax trial have been left in the lurch.
Due to this, some participants are considering getting another round of vaccines, this time with one of the approved jabs, in an effort to get certification, despite warnings from scientists that getting extra vaccines could have unknown health risks.
I spoke to one Novavax trial participant last week, a woman from Barry, in Wales, called Sharon, 55, who said she felt ‘abandoned’ by scientists involved in the trial.
‘At my age I could have had an approved vaccine in April. Instead, I’m still officially unvaccinated and I don’t know when that will change.’
Novavax hope that its jab will be approved in July, while Valneva approval may not come until September. Insiders told me they hope an agreement will be made in the coming weeks to give trial participants vaccine certification.
However, one admitted, ‘right now it’s 50-50’. Here’s hoping.
As for my current predicament, I’m resigned to a weekend of solitude, during which I intend to watch every match of the Euros – even Austria vs North Macedonia. But I believe, at some point down the line, the Government needs to revisit this issue.
Covid is not going away anytime soon. It is likely that we will be able to blunt its effects through vaccinations to the point where only a fraction of people who catch Covid will end up in hospital or die, but it is unlikely we can completely eliminate the virus from the UK. Scientists believe it will linger, returning in the winter months like flu.
If this is the case, then at what point do we stop isolating people after possible exposure? If we did the same with cold and flu, half the workforce would be in isolation in January and February.
Prof Young agrees. ‘At some point we’re going to have to tolerate this virus. That means we accept a level of hospitalisations and deaths like we do with other winter viruses.
‘We don’t use control measures like Test and Trace with cold and flu, so at some point there has to be a discussion about when we stop isolating people.’
Unfortunately, Prof Young believes that discussion won’t happen anytime soon.