The government has been warned further “explosive” coronavirus epidemics are possible if lockdown restrictions are eased before enough people are vaccinated.
In a statement on 13 January – which was made public on Friday – the Scientific Pandemic Influenza Group on Modelling Operational sub-group (SPI-M-O) said the vaccine rollout needs to be “well advanced” before curbs on people’s freedoms are lifted.
The paper warned “a further epidemic wave will take place if non-pharmaceutical interventions start being lifted before vaccine rollout is well advanced”.
In order for restrictions to be safely eased, it said there needs to be a low “number of vulnerable people who are unprotected”.
The government has said in its vaccines delivery plan that it aims to have offered a jab to all people in the priority groups – over-50s, care home residents, extremely clinically vulnerable people and over-16s with underlying health conditions – by “spring”.
Spring is defined by the Met Office as March, April, or May. Boris Johnson said this week that England’s lockdown in its current form will remain in place until at least the second week of March.
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SPI-M-O, which advises the government’s Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage), reiterated previous statements from England’s chief medical officer Prof Chris Whitty, who has said there won’t be an immediate return to normal life.
It said restrictions would need to be “lifted gradually, while retaining some basic social distancing measures”.
And it warned that “in the event of a further epidemic wave due to relaxation, transmission would be highest in the most vulnerable, deprived communities with lowest vaccination coverage – likely leading to explosive epidemics”.
He told MPs: “We hope it will be safe to begin the reopening of schools from Monday, 8 March, with other economic and social restrictions being removed then or thereafter as and when the data permits.”
The National Education Union subsequently accused the prime minister of “misplaced optimism”, saying “if we come out too early, we will end up in lockdown again”.
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