Lifting lockdown is 'gamble' and return of restrictions this winter 'cannot be ruled out', warn experts

LIFTING the remaining Covid restrictions on July 19 is a “gamble” and could lead to more rules, experts say.

The Prime Minister last night revealed the plan to scrap all social distancing and face covering laws on “Freedom Day”.

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Boris Johnson told the Downing Street briefing “we will do everything possible to avoid reimposing restrictions with all the costs that they bring”.

But Professor Neil Ferguson has said “policy will have to remain flexible” after coronavirus restrictions are lifted. 

Experts fear there could be another wave of Covid in the winter, when viruses circulate more easily, alongside a deadly outbreak of flu.

Sage, the panel of experts advising the Government, said stronger measures may be needed in the autumn and winter.

Prof Ferguson, a member of Sage, told BBC's Today Programme: “This is a slight gamble, it’s a slight experiment at the moment, and I think it’s justifiable and I’m reasonably optimistic, but policy will have to remain flexible.

“If we end up in something close to the worst-case scenario we and other groups are looking at, which I think is unlikely but can’t be ruled out, then yes there will need to be some course direction later.”

Former Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt urged caution around “using the language of irreversibility” when case numbers worldwide are so high.

The Chairman of the Commons Health Select Committee told LBC: “I think we have got to be careful about using the language of irreversibility…

"Because we still have 350,000 new infections every day across the world, there is still room for the vaccine-busting variants that we are all worried about.

“So we have to be on our guard and recognise that things may sadly yet change.”

Calum Semple, also a member of Sage, said he did not think lifting of coronavirus restrictions was a gamble. 

The professor of child health and outbreak medicine at the University of Liverpool, speaking in a personal capacity, told Times Radio: “I wouldn’t say this is a gamble, it’s more of a calculated risk.

“There’s now an incredibly strong signal that the vaccination is working and protecting the vast majority of people.”

Case numbers still rising

The go-ahead for July 19, which will be officially decided on July 12, comes amid a growing epidemic of coronavirus cases.

An average of 25,000 cases are being diagnosed each day.

At yesterday’s No10 briefing, the chief scientific adviser Sir Patrick Vallance said the doubling time for cases is now “roughly nine days”.

Mr Johnson said the pandemic is “far from over” and will not be over by July 19, with a potential 50,000 cases detected a day by that date.

Health Secretary Sajid Javid said today coronavirus case numbers could reach 100,000 per day in the summer.

 

Professor Ferguson believes cases will reach at least 50,000 a day and higher.

But he told BBC Radio 4’s Today Programme: “This third wave is going to look very different from the second wave.”

Prof Ferguson, whose work led to the first UK lockdown in March 2020, said the ratio between case numbers and deaths has reduced by eight to ten-fold.

He added: “Even if the number of cases per day gets very high, we’re still likely to see lower numbers of hospitalisations and deaths than we saw back in December and January just gone.

“At the peak of the second wave 50,000 cases would translate into something like 500 deaths, but that’s going to be much lower this time, more like 50 or so.

“The challenge is, there’s still the potential of getting very large numbers of cases and so if we get very high numbers of cases a day, 150,000 or 200,000 it could still cause some pressure to the health system.”

Sir Patrick said there has been an increase in hospital numbers, “qutie steeply in some places, and we would expect that to continue”.

He said the link between a rise in cases and hospitalisations was weakened, but “not a completely broken link”. 

Prof Whitty, England’s chief medical officer, told the No10 briefing the epidemic currently across the UK was “significant” and suggested hospital admissions could reach “quite high numbers”, although they are not expected to reach the figures seen in January.

Mr Hunt said projections suggest Covid deaths won’t be as bad as “some of our worst years for flu”.

And he is therefore “not opposed” to all restrictions being lifted in one go – even if he thinks some rules may come back.


He said: “I have been on the cautious side of this debate for the whole of the last year but I’m actually not opposed to what the Prime Minister is doing.

“The reason is because if you look at the data at the moment, the projected number of deaths from Covid going forward is less than a bad flu year.

“That’s not what’s happened up to now but I’m talking about going forward from now.

“If you’ve got the context where the death rate is lower than some diseases that we normally cope with, then I think it’s alright to change the social contract from compulsion to co-operation because we have to find a way of living with this virus.”

Mixed views

After last night’s briefing – in which Boris Johnson set out how the UK will learn to live with the virus – there has been mixed reaction.

The British Medical Association said the changes expected on July 19 are “incredibly concerning”, saying the data does not support it.

 BMA council chair Dr Chaand Nagpaul said: “For the PM to decide to go full steam ahead with the easing of all mitigations regardless, is incredibly concerning. 

“There is a clear disconnect with the actions the Government are planning to take and the data and views of the scientific community and medical profession. 

“The NHS is already under immense pressure trying to cope with an unprecedented backlog of care. 

“While admittedly the link between hospitalisations and deaths has weakened, it has not been broken and we now have twice as many people in hospital and on ventilators compared to a month ago.

“Even modest rises in patients being admitted to hospital will undermine our ability to treat the record five million patients waiting for treatment.”

Dr Nagpaul said it was “inconceivable” to expect people to get on public transport and risk catching the virus because other people had chosen to not wear a face covering.

He added: “Ultimately, the Government has a duty to protect people’s health and this announcement today falls very short of that.”

Professor Whitty acknowledged there was a “mixed” view among scientists on the timing of lifting restrictions.

But he said it was a “difficult decision” faced by ministers, but that he had “quite a strong view” that doing so in summer has advantages over holding off until the autumn.

Mr Johnson said the only alternative to July 19 is in the autumn or winter – when the virus has more of an advantage – or even next year.

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