Most people in the UK are still showing “residual cautiousness” when it comes to meeting friends and family or increasing social contact, even as Covid-19 restrictions continue to ease, a leading scientist has said.
John Edmunds, professor in the Centre for the Mathematical Modelling of Infectious Diseases at the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine, said the latest data compiled by his team suggests that since the easing of coronavirus restrictions on May 17, contacts have increased and are now at similar levels to those observed during August 2020 – the highest level observed during the pandemic.
The rise is thought to be driven by an increase in contacts in schools (measured before half term) as well as in other settings such as social, leisure and retail – after restrictions were lifted to allow people to meet indoors.
But Prof Edmunds, who is also a member of the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage) – which advises the Government, said that the data from the latest CoMix Contact Survey also suggests the UK is still a long way away from normality because people are now making roughly half as many contacts when compared to life before the Covid-19 pandemic.
He also said that although current guidelines allow people to hug each other, people remain cautious about skin-to-skin contact.
He told a media briefing on Thursday: “We are (now) making more contact than we have done at any point in the period of the epidemic.
“To some extent, that is intended – that is what the easing of restrictions is all about, allowing us to start to go back to something more approaching normality.
“So, although there is only one step left in terms of the easing of restrictions (on June 21), there is a long way to go to get back to complete normality.”
He said that easing restrictions does not necessarily mean social mixing will to back to pre-pandemic levels.
Prof Edmunds said: “We are allowed to hug each other now, but we are not, or the majority of us are not, so I think many people are remaining cautious and that is helping to reduce transmission.
“I think that there is quite a lot of residual cautiousness in the population, you can see that with the data on physical contacts.
“So although the Government might allow more more contact (and) ease restrictions, it does not mean to say that people will necessarily take up the opportunity.”
Prof Edmunds also said that despite the threat of new coronavirus variants, the country is now in a different position when compared to last year’s summer due to a large number of people being vaccinated against Covid-19.
He said: “On one hand, three quarters of the adult population have been vaccinated now, which has a huge impact on epidemiology.
“On the other hand, of course, we are also being struck by variants that are more transmissible than they were back in August and September.
“But the net effect, I think, is positive in that we are in a much better place because of the vaccination programme.”
But as coronavirus cases linked to the Indian variant continue to rise, Prof Edmunds said that advice on allowing people to return to offices on June 21 remains a political decision.
He said: “Significant numbers of contacts are made at work… and changes in working patterns have significantly reduced the contacts that adults have made (during the pandemic).
“I think that probably the one of the biggest levers the Government can pull is to suggest that people either work from home, if they can, or don’t, because that does make quite a significant impact on on the numbers of contests that people will record.
“It is a political decision so, obviously, it has a huge impact on the economy as well.”