The nation is “dilly-dallying into lockdown” and action should be taken now to avoid much tougher COVID restrictions later, a government scientific adviser has warned.
Professor Stephen Reicher told Sky News that vaccines are “not quite enough” on their own and “other protections” are needed now to tackle coronavirus.
His concerns have been echoed by fellow government adviser, Professor Peter Openshaw, who said he was “very fearful” of another “lockdown Christmas” and urged measures such as working from home and mask wearing to curb the spread of COVID-19.
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Their warning came as the government continued to resist pressure from health leaders for tighter restrictions despite rising levels of infection.
Health Secretary Sajid Javid said this week that new cases could reach 100,000 a day, but Downing Street insisted there was spare capacity in the NHS and that the fallback Plan B would only be triggered if it came under “significant pressure”.
This plan includes working from home guidance and the mandatory use of face masks in some settings.
Scientific advisers have told the government preparations for Plan B restrictions should be made now so that measures “can be ready for rapid deployment if required”.
Experts on the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (SAGE) also said, in minutes of a meeting published on Friday, that early intervention “would reduce the need for more stringent, disruptive, and longer-lasting measures”.
Speaking to Sky News, Prof Reicher, a member of the Scientific Pandemic Insights Group on Behaviours (SPI-B), which feeds into SAGE, said: “The vaccine is wonderful. The vaccine confers a huge advantage and everyone should get vaccinated but on its own it’s not quite enough, we need other protections.
“If we don’t have those other protections now, as happened last year if we wait and allow things to run out of control, we will need later restrictions.
“It’s remarkable we are in a situation where the government’s own public health leaders are giving advice which is at odds with what the government is actually doing.
“We need to act now. If we don’t protect people now with light measures we will have to restrict them later with heavier measures.
“I get a sense we are rather dilly-dallying into lockdown.”
Prof Reicher also warned against sending out the message that infections were not serious, pointing out that as well as hospitalisations and deaths, the virus also took a toll in terms of the debilitating condition of long COVID and the increased threat of vaccine-resistant new variants.
His comments were reinforced by Prof Openshaw, a member of the New and Emerging Respiratory Virus Threats Advisory Group (NERVTAG), who told the BBC: “I’m very fearful that we’re going to have another lockdown Christmas if we don’t act soon.
“We know that with public health measures the time to act is immediately. There’s no point in delaying.
“If you do delay then you need to take even more stringent actions later.”
Prof Openshaw said it was “unacceptable to be letting this run at the moment”, and added: “I think the hospitals in many parts of the country are barely coping actually.
“Talking to people on the front line, I think it’s just not sustainable to keep going at this rate.
“We need to slow down transmission and really redouble efforts to get everyone vaccinated and all the boosters out, and then we can open up again.”
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The World Health Organisation has also warned the vaccine alone will not be able to lift the world out of the pandemic.
Meanwhile, the former head of England’s coronavirus vaccine delivery drive is returning to the NHS to lead the booster jabs rollout, amid growing concerns about COVID-19’s impact this winter.
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