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"The way in which the society has come together to tackle this pandemic has been phenomenal"

Today (23 March 2022) marks the second year anniversary since Wales’ first lockdown, in response to Coronavirus.

Coronavirus Incident Director, Dr Giri Shankar MBE has been at the front line of the health protection response to the virus since day one. We asked him to reflect on the last two years and look forward to how we all need to live with Coronavirus going forward.

Q:  There are obvious negatives from the pandemic but what positives have you seen come out of it, personally and in society?

A:  'The way in which the society has come together to tackle this pandemic has been phenomenal.' People have been prepared to make huge sacrifices to not only protect themselves, their family and friends but also for the wider societal benefit.

As a result of protective behaviours adopted by the population we did not see any negative impact from other seasonal respiratory infections, such as Influenza or Respiratory Syncytial Virus for two seasons in a row.

The health protection workforce in Public Health Wales has become more resilient thanks to the investment from Welsh Government, that has helped our team expand significantly and that will stand us in good stead for the future

Q:  Knowing what you know now, what, if anything would you have done differently?

A:  Hindsight is always a wonderful thing. We now know a lot more about the virus than we did two years ago. For example advances in treatment options, development of effective vaccines, and effectiveness of non-pharmaceutical interventions - all of these, if known and available in 2020 would have meant we could have saved more lives and there would not have been the need to have stricter restrictions, including lockdown.

Q:  If you could speak to the Giri of March 2020 what's the 1 piece of advice you would give him?

A:  It is a marathon; not a sprint and you cannot run a marathon like a sprint. I would have advised myself to “slow down” a bit.

Q:  What have you learnt about yourself during the last two years?

A:  I have learnt that I have enormous personal resilience and an incredibly supportive family (wife and children), without whose support I would not have been able to work the way I did. I also realise that I could, and probably should have, been better at time management differentiating more between the important and the urgent.

Q:  What do your kids think you do at work? And how did they experience the pandemic?

A:  They think, in work, all I do is meetings and talk and talk and talk – and that I never leave my workspace.

Their experience of the pandemic ie lockdown was terrible as like everyone else they had could not go out and had to do their lessons/assignments online. Being at home 24 hours a day, seven days a week, was not nice for anyone and it did not help that dad (I) was working weekends as well.

Q:  How do you cope with stress?

A:  I try not to get stressed and thankfully I don’t experience stress very often. Meditation and yoga definitely helps and I do that every day. I also distract myself with a range of sports that I follow – motorsport (F1), cricket (I play for a local team) and tennis.

Q:  Are you Wales' equivalent to Superman if he had taken an interest in health care?

A:  I do not wish to consider myself that. It is rarely ever about a single individual like me. In a pandemic response of this scale, the real super-heroes are my team members. They have faced some of their biggest professional and personal challenges and despite that, have risen above and beyond the call of duty in trying to keep Wales safe.

Q:  Are we likely to have another lockdown due to Covid?

A:  It is very difficult to accurately predict what might happen in the future. However, my hope is that we never have to have another lockdown due to Covid. Thanks to the excellent vaccination coverage in Wales, our baseline risk at a population level is largely reduced (in so far as the most severe complications of Covid is concerned – i.e, ICU admissions and death) now compared to December 2020. If we can sustain a good level of population immunity supplemented by continued compliance to baseline protective behaviours, the need for a lockdown should not arise. But we never say never in Covid.

Q:  How do you feel about the end of restrictions?

A:  I feel very positive about this. This recognises that the population susceptibility has greatly reduced and therefore a shift from legally enforced restrictions to an individual risk-assessed responsible behaviour will allow society to function in a much more flexible and proportionate way.

Q:  Will you still wear a mask in certain situations, and if so where?

A:  I will, at least for the immediate foreseeable future. Mainly in crowded indoor spaces, public transport and in health and social care settings. I feel, whatever is in my direct control to limit the spread of infection (or catching it) I should be doing it.

Q:  What is the best piece of advice that you would give anyone that is feeling scared of catching Covid and nervous about going out /end of restrictions?

A:  I can fully appreciate that some people will be feeling nervous. I would say to such individuals that the risk-assessment at a population level has changed and is now much lower than in 2020. We have effective vaccines and therefore I will urge all eligible individuals to be up to date with their vaccination as a priority. I would also draw their attention to the advances in treatment options for Covid and the fact that scientific evidence, and indeed our own data is supporting the narrative that severe complications from Covid are reducing.

Image credit: Rob Browne/WalesOnline