Short-term lockdowns could result in more people dying with coronavirus, according to a new report.
Researchers have called for “different strategies for different age groups with more focus on shielding elderly and vulnerable people”.
It comes as Scotland introduced new rules banning pubs, restaurants and cafes from selling alcohol indoors for 16 days from Friday and suggesting similar local restrictions could be introduced in England.
The Edinburgh University study reviewed Report 9 – the piece of work by Professor Neil Ferguson and Imperial College London colleagues which predicted that hundreds of thousands of deaths would occur if no action was taken to stop the spread of COVID-19.
The Imperial study prompted the far-reaching social restrictions implemented in March – including the closure of schools and the hospitality industry.
Researchers used the same model to examine various interventions, including social distancing of the over-70s, social distancing of the entire population, closure of schools and universities, and at-home isolation of people who develop symptoms – for seven days and 14 days.
Researchers wrote: “The findings of this study suggest that prompt interventions were shown to be highly effective at reducing peak demand for intensive care unit (ICU) beds but also prolong the epidemic, in some cases resulting in more deaths long-term.”
They point out that when the interventions are lifted, there is still a large proportion of the population susceptible and a substantial number still infected with coronavirus.
“This then leads to a second wave of infections that can result in more deaths, but later,” they wrote.
The authors said that the final death toll from COVID-19 depends largely on the age of those infected and not the overall number of cases.
They added that the modelling suggests that there needs to be some sort of prioritisation of aims in tackling the crisis – reducing the case numbers, reducing the death toll or reducing the burden on intensive care units.
The researchers used 70 million simulated people matched as closely as possible to actual UK demographics, geography, and social behaviours.
They examined various interventions, including social distancing of the over-70s, social distancing of the entire population, closure of schools and universities, and at-home isolation of people who develop symptoms – for seven days and 14 days.
Graeme Ackland, professor of computer simulation from the University of Edinburgh’s School of Physics and Astronomy who led the study, said: “In the short-term, closing schools contributed to reducing the severity of the first wave, to the extent that Nightingale hospitals were not needed, but the decision has left us more vulnerable to subsequent waves of infection.”
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Commenting on the study, Mark Woolhouse, professor of infectious disease epidemiology at the University of Edinburgh, said: “Though the modelled scenario may be unrealistic, it does illustrate the general principle that, of itself, lockdown solves an immediate crisis without providing a long-term solution.
“Perhaps the key lesson that should be drawn from this study is the warning that if we allow short-term thinking to dictate our response to COVID-19 then we may not make the best decisions for minimising the public health burden over the longer term.”
A Government spokesman said: “At every stage of our response we have been guided by the advice of experts and took decisive action from the outset to support the NHS and save lives.”
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