Coronavirus response must be more proactive, public health expert warns

Craig Paton, PA Scotland Political Reporter
·3-min read

The response to coronavirus across the UK should be more proactive, a public health expert has warned.

Professor Devi Sridhar, chairwoman of public health at Edinburgh University and an adviser to the Scottish Government, said there is currently “no clear strategy” in the UK other than “reactive lockdowns”.

Each devolved administration is responsible for how it handles Covid-19, but all four are currently in lockdown following a spike in cases and deaths in the past six weeks, at least partially caused by a new, more transmissible strain of the virus.

Prof Sridhar urged governments to be more proactive, stressing that the three vaccines approved in the past month could not be considered a strategy.

She told Times Radio: “I think the larger issue here is the UK has no clear strategy beyond reactive lockdowns whenever hospitals are under pressure.

“People have been in lockdown for almost a year and I think it is unrealistic for people to continue to distance and avoid mixing for months and months when it’s part of what makes us human.”

Lessons should be learned from other countries, Prof Sridhar said, adding: “I see this slightly differently. We need a plan to stop these lockdowns, and to learn from other countries – those in east Asia and the Pacific – which are largely back to normal.”

Test and trace systems must be improved, along with stricter measures at international borders and support packages for people who are forced to self-isolate, the public health expert said.

While vaccines provide a “bright spot”, there are still questions about how they will affect the long-term prevalence of coronavirus, she said.

The length of time people will be immune to the virus for, how many people will need to take it to provide herd immunity, and whether it will stop those with the virus from being infectious all still need to be addressed.

Prof Sridhar said: “For me, the vaccine is definitely there, we have to continue rollout, keep saving lives through protecting vulnerable people with that.

“But it’s not a strategy in and of itself, and relying on it alone is highly, highly risky, especially with all the new variants and mutations. We need to have a plan and the vaccine supports that plan but it’s just your plan.”

Quiet Buchanan Street, Glasgow during lockdown
Lockdowns are ‘catastrophic’ for the economy and mental health, but necessary to drive down cases, Professor Devi Sridhar said (Andrew Milligan/PA)

Without a clear strategy, the UK could see more lockdowns needed in the summer, according to the Scottish Government adviser, who urged politicians to be more proactive.

She said: “We are not at the mercy of this virus where whatever it does we have to react.

“We can dictate how this evolves, but we need a bit more agency in being more proactive and ahead of it instead of always behind it.”

Conceding lockdowns are “crude” and “catastrophic” for the economy and mental health, Prof Sridhar said the current measures are necessary to drive down cases and allow improvements to be made to test and trace systems.

But she warned against reopening the economy fully in the summer, saying: “Instead of taking your foot off the gas and saying ‘Let’s open up everything’, actually think ‘How do we prevent this winter from happening again? How do we actually protect that low prevalence?’

“Get emergency teams in place in case there are flare-ups … go in, have a quick, sharp one-week lockdown and get your testing and tracing to clear the virus.”