A surge in coronavirus cases in Hong Kong has revealed the limits tough social distancing can achieve in the fight against coronavirus, and could mean the UK having to leave tougher restrictions in place for longer, The Independent has been told.
In Hong Kong, Singapore and China, authorities have pursued a strict lockdown policy that has in recent days started to be relaxed as numbers of infections dropped, but the latest figures have shown a possibly worrying resurgence in infections.
In Hong Kong the number of confirmed coronavirus cases increased by 225 in just 10 days to a total of 357, on Monday.
The city of 7 million was an early adopter of social distancing, closing schools and keeping people at home, but has seen many cases imported as people return from overseas.
In Wuhan, ground zero for the pandemic, the toughest lockdown has now been lifted and China was able to manage only five days before reporting its first domestic case of coronavirus again.
Similarly in Singapore and South Korea there have been dozens of new cases imported to the country in recent days with rising numbers of domestic infections.
A second wave of infections had been predicted by experts advising the UK, US and French governments, with research by Imperial College London suggesting that without a vaccine, restrictions on normal life may have to be continually “switched on and off” as cases rise to prevent NHS services being overwhelmed.
Dr Simon Clarke, associate professor of cellular microbiology at the University of Reading, told The Independent the conclusions that second waves of infection would happen now seemed obvious and inevitable.
He said: “We have got a virus in the population and it is going to keep doing what it does. It is as simple as that. It is not going anywhere and even if it does it will only come back. People are behaving as if the Chinese have beaten it. They haven’t.
“Even if those countries are able to eradicate it, the virus will only be imported again.”
He said this had happened in all pandemics back to the 14th centruy, when the bubonic plague was brought to the UK by a ship: “It is inevitable, we live in an interconnected world”.
Dr Clarke said the figures emerging in countries across Asia suggested second waves of coronavirus were happening. “All outbreaks start small, with one person.”
For the UK he said this showed the modelling was right, adding: “We will presumably come out of a lockdown situation, have some period without restrictions but have to end up imposing them again.”
Andrew Tatem, professor within geography and environmental science at the University of Southampton, said: “The lessons we can next learn from China are about which restrictions can safely be lifted, when, where, for whom, and what still needs to stay in place. While Wuhan suffered a major outbreak, the vast majority of people in China did not contract the disease.
“This means that the risk of further outbreaks remains very high, especially with so many cases now outside of China and importation becoming a new problem. Making sure that the country doesn’t suffer repeated outbreaks requiring new lockdowns will be a major priority for authorities in China, and the rest of the world should look carefully to see what happens and learn from it.”
Sian Griffiths, emeritus professor at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, and co-chair of the Hong Kong government’s Sars inquiry, said it was welcome news that new cases had reduced dramatically in Wuhan but she added: “Obvious concerns for public health authorities will be the re-emergence of infection and careful surveillance will be essential, not least of the mild and asymptomatic cases which are more difficult to count.”
She added: “The second wave of cases in Hong Kong coincides with the large numbers of students from schools and universities returning at the end of term. They have all been asked to quarantine for two weeks to avoid further spread, as some of the recent positives can be identified as imported cases.
“Following a cluster of cases in the bar area, Hong Kong has banned the sale of alcohol in bars and restaurants however they still remain open and the stay home message is more advisory and less draconian than in the UK.”
She said the government there had now reintroduced testing for travellers returning to Hong Kong, home working for some groups and cancelling exams due next month.
Boris Johnson has said the UK lockdown will be reviewed after three weeks. He has previously said the country will be able to “turn the tide” within 12 weeks if everyone follows the rules.
The Imperial College research published earlier this month suggested the restrictions could last for up to 18 months without a vaccine or drug that successfully treats the virus.