Oxford professor warns against 'annual winter lockdowns' amid debate on COVID rules

People arrive at the Elland Road Leeds COVID Vaccination Centre, as the coronavirus booster vaccination programme continues across the UK. Despite the ramping-up of the booster programme, experts said it would not help in terms of hospitals admissions in the near future, as many would be people who are infected now before immunity has had time to build. Picture date: Monday December 20, 2021.
People arrive at the Elland Road Leeds COVID Vaccination Centre for their booster jabs on Monday. (PA)

An Oxford professor has warned against the possibility of 'annual winter lockdowns' as the government considers its position on the UK's current COVID regulations.

Professor Carl Heneghan, director of evidence-based medicine at the University of Oxford University, said it is time to treat people “like adults”.

He said the government needed to trust the public in the future, amid reports Boris Johnson is holding a virtual cabinet meeting on Monday afternoon.

Speculation has mounted that the government may introduce tougher COVID-19 measures ahead of the new year, though a number of ministers are said to be resisting calls for further restrictions.

Speaking to BBC Radio 4’s Today programme, Prof Heneghan, who is a GP, said the question is: “When are we going to treat people like adults?”

He said the behaviour of the British public has 'already changed' - though Prof Heneghan's claims were later described by another COVID expert as 'an abuse of statistics'.

Prof Heneghan said: “It’s already changed in response to the messages.

Watch: Virus expert says dealing with COVID now better than waiting

“If you’re in Greater London now, (population in) the workplace is down by 40%, public transport down by 40%.

“In the city of London, it’s up to 60%. So people are able to respond to information or adapt their behaviour accordingly. The question here is when are we going to treat people like adults?

“People will moderate their behaviour accordingly. That’s what we need to trust people to do going forward because that’s the only sustainable policy.”

Prof Heneghan added: “This time last year, there were over 2,000 people being admitted. So we’re in a very different place with the presence of vaccines, the presence of the boosters, antivirals on board, and you have to reflect on that information.

File dated 07/12/21 of Deputy Prime Minister Dominic Raab was asked whether he believes
Deputy prime minister Dominic Raab has not ruled out a Christmas lockdown. (PA)

“We’re in deep, deep trouble here of potentially talking ourselves into annual winter lockdown. Because what happens is this is as good as it gets.”

But Christina Pagel, a mathematician and professor of operational research at University College London, criticised Prof Heneghan on Twitter.

She tweeted: “Using deaths or hospitalisations (which are very lagged indicators) as a marker of Omicron wave's potential severity when cases have risen so rapidly and only reached high levels in the last week is pure abuse of statistics from Heneghan.”

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On Monday, deputy prime minister Dominic Raab said he could not make any “hard, fast guarantees” that more restrictions will not be needed ahead of Christmas Day.

He told Sky News the data is “always under review” but claimed the country is in a “better position to enjoy Christmas with loved ones” this year.

Amid reports ministers have pushed back against calls from scientific advisers for new measures to tackle the Omicron coronavirus variant before Christmas, Raab said all cabinet ministers ask questions about the advice received.

Confirmed cases of the faster-spreading strain have risen by more than 12,000 in the UK – and London’s cases alone topped 10,000, according to the latest data on Sunday.

But about one third of the cabinet are said to be reluctant to support new restrictions in the coming days, with prime minister Boris Johnson and chancellor Rishi Sunak among them, according to The Times.

The paper reported that 10 ministers are resisting a call by the government’s chief scientific adviser Sir Patrick Vallance at the weekend for new restrictions to be brought in as soon as possible to prevent the health service being overwhelmed.

Conservative MPs are expected to receive a briefing from Sir Patrick on Monday afternoon.

Johnson has been presented with three options to tackle the spread of the virus, according to the Daily Telegraph.

Digital government advertisements promoting the Covid-19 booster vaccine seen at a bus shelter in London. Over 82,000 coronavirus cases were recorded in a 40 percent jump from last Sunday but the government has so far stopped short of formal limits on socializing as it awaits further evidence of the severity and impact of the new Omicron variant. (Photo by Tejas Sandhu / SOPA Images/Sipa USA)
A woman in a face mask walks past a booster advert in London. (PA)

The paper reported that they range from guidance asking people to limit indoor contacts, to rules on household mixing, social distancing and a curfew on pubs and restaurants and, thirdly, a full lockdown.

A further 12,133 confirmed cases of the variant have been reported across the UK, the data on Sunday showed, bringing the total confirmed cases of Omicron across the four nations to 37,101.

In total, a further 82,886 lab-confirmed COVID-19 cases were recorded in the UK as of 9am Sunday, the government said.

Professor Stephen Reicher, a member of government advisory body, the Scientific Pandemic Insights Group on Behaviours (Spi-B), told BBC Breakfast: “The safest thing is not to meet up before Christmas.

“If you want a good Christmas dinner, I would say be very careful about meeting up before Christmas.”

Watch: Dominic Raab says 'much better Christmas' ahead but does not rule out restrictions