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Boris Johnson has been warned the UK is facing “another large wave of hospitalisations” this winter.
In documents made public on Tuesday, the Scientific Pandemic Influenza Group on Modelling (SPI-M-O), which advises the government, warned on Wednesday last week of the need for “light” interventions – such as working from home and face mask wearing – to prevent another lockdown.
All coronavirus restrictions were lifted in England two months ago, on 19 July.
SPI-M-O warned that “increasing cases remain the earliest warning sign that hospital admissions are likely to rise”.
It projected that a reproduction “R” rate of 1.5 – the current R number for England is 0.9 to 1.1 – could lead to more than 6,000 daily hospital admissions by mid-October.
On 7 September, the latest date for which hospital figures are available, 1,076 COVID-19 patients were hospitalised across the UK.
In particular, SPI-M-O warned of the consequences of large numbers of people returning to their workplaces, saying that “it is highly likely that a significant decrease in home working in the next few months would result in a rapid increase in hospital admissions”.
The group suggested “light touch” interventions such as encouraging home-working, widespread testing, a return to requiring all contacts of cases to isolate (as of 16 August, double-vaccinated people haven’t had to isolate after contact with a COVID-positive person) and more mask-wearing.
It hinted that a failure to reimpose light restrictions could lead to lockdowns, saying: “A basket of measures, light enough to keep the epidemic flat, would be sufficient if enacted when hospitalisations were at a manageable level.
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“If the epidemic were allowed to continue to grow until hospitalisations were at a level that needed to be rapidly reduced, much more stringent (and therefore more disruptive) measures would be needed to bring prevalence down quickly.”
The documents were released as the government announced its blueprint for dealing with COVID in the autumn and winter.
Downing Street outlined “Plan B” measures for if its “Plan A” for controlling the virus doesn’t work – with some falling in line with SPI-M-O's suggestions.
The measures could include mandatory COVID certificates at venues with large attendances, a legal requirement to wear face masks in certain settings and advice to work from home.
Minutes for another meeting, of the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage) on Thursday last week, were also released to the public on Tuesday.
The government’s top COVID advisory body also hinted at the possibility of reimposed restrictions this winter.
Some of the minutes read: “Sage reiterated the importance of acting early to slow a growing epidemic. Early, ‘low-cost’ interventions may forestall need for more disruptive measures and avoid an unacceptable level of hospitalisations.”
The group also noted that European countries with similar levels of vaccination to the UK “have maintained more interventions (masks, vaccine certification, work from home)... and are seeing their epidemics decline”.
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