One of the world’s top immunologists has suggested a national circuit-breaker may be necessary in England, as he said some parts of the country are facing “eye-watering” levels of infection.
As pressure grows on No 10 to consider to going much further than the current three-tier regional strategy, Sir John Bell, a government adviser and regius professor of medicine at Oxford University, said it would be difficult to get on top of the virus by “just biting around the edges”.
Earlier this week it emerged the government had rejected advice from the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage) to consider imposing a time-limited circuit breaker to curb the spread of the virus as long ago as 21 September.
Speaking at the Downing Street coronavirus briefing on Friday, Boris Johnson dismissed calls for a national lockdown but said he cannot “rule anything out”, insisting he wanted to avoid the “damaging health, economic and social effects it would have”.
Pressed on the current situation, Sir John told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme: “Things look pretty grave at the moment and the numbers are going up pretty rapidly.
“I think the other phenomenon you’re seeing is people are pretty unhappy, they are tired, this has been going on too long, they can’t go about their business, they can’t do the normal things they would expect to do. Hospital staff are exhausted from the last go and so I think we’re actually in real trouble because as that happens compliance and the willingness to help fix this problem starts to dissipate.”
But, he added: “Having said that I can see very little way of getting on top of this without some kind of a circuit-breaker because the numbers are actually pretty eye-watering in some bits of the country and I think it’s going to be very hard to get on top of this just biting around the edges.”
His comments came as Northern Ireland ramped up its restrictions on Friday, including the four-week closure of pubs and restaurants and an extension to the school half-term holidays, while the Welsh government is also considering further measures.
Asked whether schools should be kept open, Sir John added: “I think there will be every effort to keep schools open. Just to paint the picture, there are universities in this country which have 50, 60, 70 per cent of their kids in quarantine – I mean, oh my god, what kind of a university is that? This is not a good place to be.
“If in the end we have to take kids out for two weeks, calm it all down and then start ideally embedded in a much more rigorous testing regime then that’s maybe what we may have to do.”
On Friday, the National Education Union (NEU) – one of the country’s biggest teaching bodies – urged the government to consider an urgent circuit-breaker, with a schools and colleges in England closed for two-weeks at half-term to suppress Covid-19 cases.
Joint general secretary of the union Kevin Courtney said: “Heads, teachers and school staff understand the educational impact of this, but we also understand that in exponential epidemics early action is essential. Taking action now can avoid more disruption later.”
Jeremy Hunt, the former Conservative health secretary, also hinted at support for a circuit-breaker, saying: “I've always thought that it's better to do things quickly and decisively than to wait until the virus has grown so I have a lot of sympathy with that.
"But I think more important right now is we stop this public war of words between local leaders and national leaders because in a pandemic the most important thing is a consistent message because you really have to have compliance with the very, very important public health messages about social distancing.And if local leaders and national leaders are saying different things, it's incredibly damaging.
"I really do urge Andy Burnham and other local leaders to have these arguments, and I'm sure they're very fierce arguments and I'm sure there's some justification for some of their concerns, but have those arguments in private not in public because that's so damaging to the national fight against the virus."