COVID restrictions could be eased back to Tier 2 by May, says top government adviser

People enjoy a meal out in Covent Garden, London. The �Eat Out to Help Out' scheme will give diners a half-price discount on meals during the whole month of August, as the Government aims at boosting restaurant and pub trade following the lockdown. Picture date: Friday August 7, 2020.
Pubs were allowed to stay. open under Tier 2 rules. (Getty)

One of the UK's leading epidemiologists has said he is hopeful Boris Johnson will be able to start reopening schools in March before easing restrictions even further the following month.

Professor Neil Ferguson of Imperial College London, who advises the government as part of the New and Emerging Respiratory Virus Threats Advisory Group, said he is “hopeful” the country could be in its “final lockdown”.

Prof Ferguson said it was possible restrictions similar to those in England's Tier 2 could be in place by May, with some areas even moving into Tier 1-like measures if incidence of the virus is “very low”. He did acknowledge there was some uncertainty around the estimates.

He said the variant first identified in Kent in December had created significant problems in stemming the spread of the virus, but that the current lockdown had driven down cases "quite fast".

"We're in a better place than I might have anticipated a month ago," Prof Ferguson told POLITICO's Westminster Insider podcast.

He said that scientists’ current best estimates meant it was “realistic” that England will be back in tier two-style conditions by May, with the “rule of six” for social gatherings and pubs and restaurants serving meals, and less stringent controls in areas with very low numbers of cases.

Watch: What you can and can't do during the UK's third lockdown

Boris Johnson announced on 27 January that the lockdown was being extended until 8 March at the earliest. He said schools would be the first to be reopened, followed by the lifting of other economic and social restrictions.

Prof Ferguson said: "If we continue to see then a continued decline [in infections] without large outbreaks, then perhaps starting to relax other aspects of society the following month.

Prof Ferguson estimated that around a third of the UK population now has some immunity to COVID-19, partly because so many people have been naturally infected and partly because of the vaccine rollout.

“Completely relaxing and moving back to something akin to where we were in August – we had some restrictions but much lighter – that will really depend on how we see the earlier relaxations play out."

Prof Ferguson's outlook was backed by Tim Spector, lead scientist on the Zoe Covid Symptom Study app and professor of genetic epidemiology at King’s College London, who said: “Based on the Zoe data and our predictions we are soon to be in the same place we were in early June, with the advantage of having a large proportion of the population vaccinated, which could mean good news in terms of lifting some restrictions sooner rather than later.

“By March 8 we should have less than 1 in 740 people with symptoms, allowing us to get kids back into the classrooms and starting to allow people to exercise and meet, at least outdoors, where the risk of transmission is much lower."

Johnson under pressure

Boris Johnson announced on 27 January that the lockdown was being extended until 8 March at the earliest. He said schools would be the first to be reopened, followed by the lifting of other economic and social restrictions.

In recent weeks, Johnson has faced increasing pressure to lift lockdown restrictions sooner rather than later.

The COVID Recovery Group of lockdown-sceptic Tory MPs has said restrictions must begin to be lifted on 8 March, no matter what.

Johnson has indicated that when his 'roadmap' out of lockdown is revealed on 22 February, a gradual reopening of schools will be the first step. But he has warned any action will be based on infection numbers at the time.

Daily confirmed cases of Covid-19 in the UK. See story HEALTH Coronavirus. Infographic PA Graphics. An editable version of this graphic is available if required. Please contact
The trend in cases has been consistently declining since the start of lockdown.

"To people who understandably want to go faster, I share that anxiety and that urgency," he told a media conference on 3 February. "We don't want to be forced into reverse, so we think this is prudent and cautious approach and I think it is much better to stick to that."

Schools in Scotland will begin to reopen after half-term next Monday (22 February) and First Minister for Wales Mark Drakeford has indicated that Welsh schools will do as well, if infection numbers appear under control.

Ferguson — who resigned as a government adviser in May after he was caught breaching lockdown restrictions — said that the UK's vaccine rollout offered hope of people being able to enjoy more freedoms by the summer, but that a full return to normality would have to wait until the "real-world effectiveness" of the impact had been measured.

Epidemiologist Neil Ferguson speaks at a news conference in London, Britain January 22, 2020, in this still image taken from video. REUTERS TV via REUTERS
Epidemiologist Neil Ferguson advised Boris Johnson ahead of the UK's first nationwide lockdown (REUTERS TV via REUTERS)

He said: "I'm hopeful it will be the final lockdown, so long as we are relatively cautious in coming out of this lockdown.

"If we relax too quickly without seeing the effect of each stage of relaxation, we may do what we've done before and relax too much, see a surge in case numbers, and still need to tighten up measures again.

"My best guess is, though, my fervent hope is, certainly, by this time next year, we will be basically back to normal. I mean, without any significant degree of the current controls in place."

Read more: What you can and can't do under current lockdown rules

During his interview, Ferguson revealed that up to a third of Brits — "certainly 30 percent" — are now believed to have contracted the virus.

Warning for Europe

On Thursday the World Health Organization’s (WHO) European director issued a warning to countries thinking about coming out of lockdown, saying the “overwhelming majority remain vulnerable”.

Hans Kluge said too many governments have previously “reopened too fast and lost hard-earned gains”.

He warned that vaccine programmes were not extensive enough to control the pandemic, adding that vaccine protection should not provide governments with “a false sense of security” for leaving lockdown.

A woman queues to receive the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) vaccine outside a closed down Debenhams store that is being used as a vaccination centre in Folkestone, Kent, Britain January 28, 2021. REUTERS/Andrew Couldridge
Experts have warned that a successful vaccination rollout should not be used as a reason to lift lockdown too early (REUTERS/Andrew Couldridge)

Professor Adam Finn, a member of the UK's Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation, has also warned against easing restrictions too early.

He told the Radio Times: “You could argue when you've immunised all the people at high risk or very large number of them that's the end of the problem.

“Unfortunately, though, it isn't really, because once we've done that there will still be these vaccines which are not 100% effective and not 100% of people will have had them.

“And you do see serious illness in younger people to an extent.

“There will still be a lot of vulnerable people in the population, in the sense that they've not had the infection. So if we all of a sudden in April sort of said ‘right, this is over’ and went back to normal we would then have another enormous wave of the infection and a lot of people would end up being sick and it would be very disruptive.”

Watch: What is long COVID?