Lockdown may need to return in autumn and winter, warn Sage scientists

Despite Boris Johnson’s ‘irreversible’ route out of lockdown, Government scientists warn ‘stronger’ restrictions could be needed later this year.

Yesterday the Prime Minister unveiled plans for England’s long-awaited ‘Freedom Day’ on July 19, which will see the vast majority of Covid safety rules lifted.

He acknowledged the pandemic was ‘far from over’, as daily cases could hit 50,000 in a fortnight.

The vaccine has ‘weakened the link’ between cases and hospital admissions, said chief scientist Sir Patrick Vallance, but the number of coronavirus patients is rising at a slower rate.

Covid-19 is not going to go away anytime soon, and while a rise in deaths as a result of lifting restrictions is inevitable, the PM asked: ‘If not now, then when?’

However, newly released papers from the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage) urged ministers to keep ‘baseline measures’ in place including face masks and working from home.

The Government advisers said ‘sustained long-term behavioural change’ could be needed to control a ‘resurgence in infections’.

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Warning of more restrictions in the autumn and winter, the scientists said: ‘There is significant risk in allowing prevalence to rise, even if hospitalisations and deaths are kept low by vaccination.

‘If it were necessary to reduce prevalence to low levels again (e.g., VoC become more pathogenic for others previously less affected), then restrictive measures would be required for much longer.’

Minutes from one meeting on April 22, released last night, said lifting restrictions may ‘re-create the conditions for “superspreader” events’.

A week later, Sage’s Scientific Pandemic Insights Group on Behaviours drew up a paper, which said: ‘As legal restrictions are eased, maintaining low levels of transmission will require continuing policies that promote Covid-protective behaviours.’

An undated paper considering which measures could be needed ‘beyond the end of the roadmap’, includes a section on ‘the need for ongoing measures’.

It says: ‘Though vaccines are expected to have some population level impact on transmission, this will be limited until those groups which have more contacts (e.g. younger adults) have been vaccinated.

‘Even beyond the point when all adults have been offered the vaccine, keeping
some level of measures in place both through summer and beyond would significantly decrease ongoing transmission.

‘It is notable that countries (e.g. New Zealand) that have near-zero Covid-19 have decided to retain some baseline measures (e.g. wearing of masks on public transport) to reduce the impact of occasional outbreaks.

The group of scientists said self-isolation ‘needs to become routine’ for anyone with symptoms, that quarantine after international travel is ‘important’ and that local measures, potentially including lockdowns, will be needed ‘in all scenarios’.

Sage added that working from home is highly effective at cutting the spread of Covid and recommended continued distancing and the use of masks.

At yesterday’s Downing Street press conference, the Prime Minister refused to rule out a return of lockdown restrictions in England.

This was after previously saying the final unlocking of the country would be ‘cautious yet irreversible’.

He said: ‘What we want to do is strike the right balance and we are trying to move from a system of very elaborate Government rules to one in which we rely on people to exercise personal responsibility, to follow guidance mindful, as I say that this pandemic is far from over.

‘What we have achieved with the vaccine rollout has put us in a very strong position in comparison to many other countries in terms of the wall of protection that we have – but we must remain cautious and I think that’s why I’m asking people to think in that way.

‘I don’t want people to feel that this is the moment to get demob happy, that this is the end of Covid.

‘On the irreversibility point, obviously if we do find another variant that doesn’t respond to the vaccines, if heaven forbid, some really awful new bug should appear, then clearly we will have to take whatever steps we need to do to protect the public.

‘But on balance, given the massive success of the vaccine rollout, given the fact that this is a propitious moment, a good moment to do it given the coming summer holidays, the natural firebreak we have there, and given the difficultly of us opening up in the context of the colder, autumn and winter months, I think this is a balanced and cautious approach.’

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