Covid is back with a rebrand – and the rules have changed

As any good marketeer – or Madonna, or the rapper currently known as Diddy, or the drink formerly known as Lilt, or the man always known as Matt Hancock – could tell you, it’s helpful to undergo the occasional rebrand if you wish to stay relevant and thriving in a fast-paced world.

Covid-19 doesn’t have brand advisers, no matter what you read in the seedier suburbs of the internet, but it definitely has a talent for reinventing itself. None of us needs reminding of the variants, the strains, the waves and the “wahey, here we go again”(s) over the past three years. They were relentless. Boring, even, if a deadly virus can ever be boring.

Now, though, after a steady period during which almost all remaining rules and restrictions have been dropped, as well as the vaccination programmes tapered off, Covid seems to be … back? And nobody is entirely sure what to do about it.

One in 65 people in England is currently testing positive for coronavirus, according to the latest statistics – including me last week. I mainly felt tired – and not ill enough to take the day off work. A clutch of celebrities did so after the Golden Globes, reminding us that even in 2023, mass events carry risk. And this week, the Queen Consort has been felled, cancelling her events to rest for the week after suffering what Buckingham Palace initially called a “seasonal illness”.

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The disease hasn’t really changed, of course, but everything around it – from the advice to the etiquette – definitely has. So it’s time to take stock. Welcome to Covid Britain, version 10294913. It’s nothing if not a shapeshifter …

The name change

If anybody can affect an official name change for Covid-19, it’s Buckingham Palace, and “seasonal illness” is as benign and cheerful as calling it “coughsy-daisy” or “quarterly lie-down week”.

Queen Camilla’s reluctance to make a fuss is understandable. Announcing to the world that you have Covid-19 in this day and age sounds both melodramatic and old school, but not in a good way.

So a name change was due, and “seasonal illness” gets across two key things: that we’re all going to contract the virus every once in a while; and that for almost all of us, symptoms will be mild. That said, coughsy-daisy is better.

Testing, testing

As a colleague said yesterday, “it’s non-U to test” – which may well be how we ended up in this mess to start with. But when somebody announces their Covid diagnosis nowadays, it’s an obvious question: now that they cost money, why would you do a test?

In the Queen Consort’s case, I imagine it’s because it would be a bad look to give a potential severe respiratory illness to the people of Milton Keynes on her planned visit, so she thought it would be a good idea to check.

When I tested positive, it was due to feeling a little peaky before meeting a two-week-old baby, who I decided could do without having to learn about Covid.

And I suspect people have their own, personal reasons too. Besides, a test is validation, isn’t it? An objective “I told you I was ill” that allows you to put two fingers – or two red lines – up at the sceptics who rolled their eyes and told you to stop whining about having a cold. “Er, actually, it’s Covid …”

The advice

To the NHS website, which has been updated and re-updated more than Twitter’s algorithms over the past few months. If you test positive for Covid-19 now, it says, from the day after you did the test you should:

  • “Try to stay at home and avoid contact with other people for 5 days.”
  • “Avoid meeting people at higher risk from Covid-19 for 10 days, especially if their immune system means they’re at higher risk of serious illness from Covid-19, even if they’ve had a Covid-19 vaccine.”

The second part is common sense; the operative word in the first seems to be “try”. Do your best to do nothing. Make every effort to make no effort. Move to avoid moving. 

Unfortunately that’s where the etiquette comes in …

The etiquette

You can try to stay at home for just five days, but how happy are co-workers going to be when you come spluttering into the office on day six, given we’re all old enough to remember when you were a social pariah for a month if you tested positive?

And how unhappy is your boss going to be when you are audibly fine on the phone, and the life and soul of the office WhatsApp group all week, but insist that you cannot come into the office because the NHS has told you to “try” to avoid meeting people at a higher risk for 10 days, citing Gavin from upstairs’s asthma as an example?

Aside from that, a new social minefield has been formed. Is it unethical to go on holiday with Covid, given most countries no longer require a test? Probably, but holidays cost money, so … Is it sociopathic to demand guests test before your wedding? Um … yes. Is having Covid a reasonable excuse when attempting to get out of having to visit Milton Keynes with your husband, the King? Yes, ma’am, absolutely.

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