National lockdown needs to be stricter, warn scientists

Aine Fox, PA
·4-min read

The national lockdown needs to be toughened further to have a similar impact on case numbers as the March shutdown, scientists have said.

A more infectious variant, coupled with the usual winter pressures, requires stricter measures than the ones announced by Boris Johnson for England this month, the experts warned.

Similar lockdown measures are in place across Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.

Professor Robert West, a participant in the Scientific Pandemic Influenza Group on Behaviours (SPI-B), said the current restrictions are “still allowing a lot of activity which is spreading the virus”.

The professor of health psychology at University College London said he, and people he has spoken to including epidemiologists, medical scientists and virologists, think the rules should be tightened.

He told BBC News more children are going to school than in the first lockdown and that schools are “a very important seed of community infection”.

He added: “Because we have the more infectious variant, which is somewhere around 50% more infectious than last time round in March, that means that if we were to achieve the same result as we got in March we would have to have a stricter lockdown, and it’s not stricter.

“It’s actually less strict.”

Some scientists have estimated the variant could be as much as 70% more transmissible.

Susan Michie, professor of health psychology at University College London, said the current lockdown was “too lax”.

The Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage) member told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme: “It is definitely too lax, because if you think about it and compare ourselves with March, what do we have now?

“We have the winter season and the virus survives longer in the cold, plus people spend more time indoors and we know aerosol transmission, which happens indoors, is a very big source of transmission for this virus.

“And secondly we have this new variant which is 50-70% more infectious. You put those two things together, alongside the NHS being in crisis, we should have a stricter rather than less strict lockdown than we had back in March.”

Both she and Prof West are also part of Independent Sage, a group of experts who have argued for tougher measures at various points throughout the pandemic.

Prof West said the Government is “very much aware of the consequences of different levels of restrictions and obviously what it’s doing is it’s making what it considers to be a political decision”.

Criticising the Government, he said it is “completely false” for them to say they have acted at the right time.

Asked if the level of infection and number of deaths was potentially avoidable, he told BBC News: “Yes, it was always avoidable. This is the really frustrating thing for all of us who work in public health.

“This was always avoidable. When the Government says – I’m going to be quite critical now I’m afraid – but when the Government says ‘oh we’re in the same boat as other countries, we didn’t see this coming’, and so on, and ‘we’re acting at the right time’. That is completely false.”

He said that in summer, when cases decreased, experts had advised the Government to ramp up its Test and Trace system as well as support for people to isolate – but they failed to do so.

He said: “They didn’t do this. They maintained their hugely expensive but ineffective test, trace and isolate system.

“They’re not providing the kind of support that’s needed for people to feel that they’re able to do the sorts of things that the Government is now saying ‘well, we’re going to punish you if you don’t do it’. So they’ve got it all the wrong way round.

“It’s really much, much more about support.”

A Government spokesperson said: “Our priority from the outset has been to protect the NHS to save lives and we have taken advice from scientific and medical experts throughout.

“As new evidence has emerged, we have adapted our approach and taken swift action to try and stop the spread of the virus.

“We are now undertaking the biggest vaccination rollout in UK history, with over 1.5 million people already vaccinated, and continue to put in place measures to ensure NHS and social care services are available to anyone who needs them.”