Boris Johnson is running out of time to take tougher action to stem Covid transmission if people in England are to have a chance of an “amnesty” from lockdown for Christmas, a senior public health expert has said.
Fears that tighter restrictions will prevent families gathering for the festive break have been fuelled by reports that the prime minister is now working on the assumption that the second wave of the virus will be more deadly than the first and will last through the winter.
Downing Street did not dispute reports that the PM’s Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies has provided a projection of as many as 25,000 coronavirus patients in hospital by the end of next month, though there was no immediate confirmation of where the figures come from or whether they will be published.
Public health expert Dr Gabriel Scally of the University of Bristol, a member of the Independent Sage group, said the reports reinforced the need for a time-limited national “circuit breaker” - as recommended by Sage in September as well as the Independent Sage group of which he is a member - along with reform of the “extraordinarily inept” test and trace system.
If this was done immediately, Mr Johnson may still have the option of offering England an amnesty from social restrictions for a day or two over Christmas or drawing up a menu of relaxed measures which individual families could adopt in their homes, he told The Independent.
But he warned: “To do any of that, you have to get infections well down. You can’t do it if hospitals are overflowing and deaths are at high levels.
“I don’t think we are too late to get things into decent shape by Christmas, but we are running out of time. The door is closing, if it hasn’t closed already.”
The government today dismissed calls from the Liberal Democrats and Northern Ireland’s Alliance Party for a four-nation summit to agree common arrangements for Christmas in the hope of allowing as many families as possible to meet up.
Cabinet minister George Eustice made clear the government is sticking to its three-tier approach of varying restrictions depending on rates of the illness in different areas, which he said was “the right thing to do”.
He said it was too early in the fast-moving epidemic to plan for Christmas, but indicated that residents of Tier 3 zones - now including Merseyside, Greater Manchester and South Yorkshire, with Nottinghamshire and West Yorkshire slated to join - may not be able to travel to see relatives outside their areas, as this was “not provided for currently”.
“We want to be in a position where people can meet with family. Will it be able to happen on a large scale? Well, that might be harder, if we’re honest,” the environment secretary told Times Radio.
“But we nevertheless want Christmas to be celebrated and for families to be able to celebrate and mark Christmas, it’s a very important family time.”
Labour and Lib Dems have already given their backing to a national circuit-break.
And Greater Manchester mayor Andy Burnham said that “time is running” out for it to be deployed ahead of Christmas.
“I think the government needs not to dig in on its tier system but be open-minded about what is going to deliver the results in terms of the drop of cases, and do least harm to the economy,” said Mr Burnham.
Sage member Andrew Hayward, professor of infectious disease epidemiology at University College London, said that national action was needed to rein in Covid’s spread.
“To interrupt transmission, we really need to take a whole load of different actions all in one go to stop this virus spreading,” he told Sky News.
“Half a million people infected with Covid in this country is huge numbers really. So more intensive actually is really needed to stop that spreading. And I would argue that's needed in all parts of the country, not just the areas that currently have high levels.”
Former chief scientific adviser Sir Mark Walport said there was “little to feel reassured about”, warning: “There are still an awful lot of people out there who are vulnerable, it’s not, as it were, that the disease has killed off everyone who is vulnerable, there are still very many people that are vulnerable and we know that only still a relatively small proportion of the population has had this infection.”
And Prof Neil Ferguson of Imperial College, whose modelling prompted the UK-wide lockdown in March, said: “The concern at the moment is that even if the measures adopted in Tier 2 and Tier 3 areas slow spread in the next few weeks, they are unlikely to cause daily cases and deaths to fall rapidly.
“Modelling from all the academic groups informing Sage suggests that this could leave the country with high levels of Covid circulation, healthcare demand and mortality for several months, at least until spring 2021.”
The sharp rise in cases which saw 24,701 positive tests and 310 deaths reported today on Wednesday, comes amid growing pressure form his own party for Mr Johnson to ease restrictions, with a group of 54 northern Tory MPs writing to the PM to demand a “roadmap out of lockdown”.
Mr Eustice said he did not think another national lockdown was the right approach and insisted that it was succeeding in preventing the crucial rate of reproduction of the disease - known as R - from rising to its natural level of around 3.
"What we know is that we're managing to hold, nationally, the R rate at around 1.4,” he said. “That's obviously higher than we'd like, we need to get it below 1 to get the virus under control, but we also know that if we hadn't done the measures we're doing, if we just had a laissez faire approach, it would be running at around two and a half to three - which is its natural infection rate.
“It's not true to say the measures we are taking are not working, they are dampening the spread of the virus, but they've not yet got us into the position where we are reversing the incidence of the virus.”
The minister said the government would not “rule anything out”, but said his “fundamental point is there's no point in having a lockdown” in places “where the incidence of the disease is very low”. He argued that this would “simply cause economic harm for no gain at all”.
Lib Dem leader Sir Ed Davey said his party was calling for a four-nation summit because “no one country can manage this challenge in isolation - the fractured rules across the UK have already been incredibly difficult to piece together."