Toughen 'lax' lockdown or mutant virus will spread further, scientists warn

Scientists have called for the national lockdown to be made stricter amid concerns its not going to be enough to stop the highly infectious new form of Covid from spreading.

The current restrictions won’t have the impact on case numbers that the first lockdown did in the spring because there’s ‘still too much activity’ going on, according to experts.

Professor Robert West, a participant in the Scientific Pandemic Influenza Group on Behaviours (SPI-B), has pointed to the amount of children still going to school as a difference between the March and current lockdowns.

This is concerning, he said, because schools are ‘a very important seed of community infection’.

The professor of health psychology at University College London told BBC News: ‘Because we have the more infectious variant, which is somewhere around 50% more infectious than last time round in March, that means that if we were to achieve the same result as we got in March we would have to have a stricter lockdown, and it’s not stricter. It’s actually less strict.’

The mutant form of Covid has been spreading rapidly around the UK since December and, coupled with the usual winter pressures, the NHS is under increasing strain.

Boris Johnson plunged the country back into lockdown on January 4 after his tiered system wasn’t enough to contain the spread of the disease.

People are being told to stay at home and all non-essential businesses have been forced to close until at least mid-February.

Similar lockdown measures are in place across Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.

Susan Michie, professor of health psychology at University College London, said the current lockdown was ‘too lax’.

The Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage) member told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme: ‘It is definitely too lax, because if you think about it and compare ourselves with March, what do we have now?

‘We have the winter season and the virus survives longer in the cold, plus people spend more time indoors and we know aerosol transmission, which happens indoors, is a very big source of transmission for this virus.

‘And secondly we have this new variant which is 50-70% more infectious. You put those two things together, alongside the NHS being in crisis, we should have a stricter rather than less strict lockdown than we had back in March.’

Both she and Prof West are also part of Independent Sage, a group of experts who have argued for tougher measures at various points throughout the pandemic.

Prof West said the Government is ‘very much aware of the consequences of different levels of restrictions and obviously what it’s doing is it’s making what it considers to be a political decision’.

Criticising the Government, he said it is ‘completely false’ for them to say they have acted at the right time.

Asked if the level of infection and number of deaths was potentially avoidable, he told BBC News: ‘Yes, it was always avoidable. This is the really frustrating thing for all of us who work in public health.

‘This was always avoidable. When the Government says – I’m going to be quite critical now I’m afraid – but when the Government says ‘oh we’re in the same boat as other countries, we didn’t see this coming’, and so on, and ‘we’re acting at the right time’. That is completely false.’

He said that in summer, when cases decreased, experts had advised the Government to ramp up its test and trace system as well as support for people to isolate – but they failed to do so.

He said: ‘They didn’t do this. They maintained their hugely expensive but ineffective test, trace and isolate system.

‘They’re not providing the kind of support that’s needed for people to feel that they’re able to do the sorts of things that the Government is now saying ‘well, we’re going to punish you if you don’t do it’. So they’ve got it all the wrong way round. It’s really much, much more about support.’

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