Relaxing Covid-19 restrictions will lead to another wave of coronavirus infections if it is not done in a cautious way, scientists advising the Government have warned.
In a set of documents published by the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage), the experts said that the number of cases, hospital and ICU admissions, and deaths, remain high nationally, with “significant pressure” on the NHS.
It comes as the latest data from the Office for National Statistics (ONS) shows coronavirus infections to be levelling off across the UK, with one in 55 people in private households in England infected with Covid-19 between January 17 and 23.
The ONS said the percentage of people testing positive in England “remains high”, with more than one million people infected in the most recent week’s data.
Meanwhile, figures released by the Government on Friday showed the reproduction number (R) of coronavirus to be between 0.7 and 1.1 across the UK.
R represents the average number of people each Covid-positive person goes on to infect.
When the figure is above 1, it means the outbreak is growing, but when it falls below 1, it means the outbreak is shrinking.
Sage scientists also warned that reaching herd immunity from vaccination alone may not be possible as it would require very high uptake among all adults, as well as the vaccine being highly effective against coronavirus transmission.
In a document dated January 14, the experts said: “Vaccines are not 100% effective, and there will not be 100% coverage.
“The relaxation of non-pharmaceutical interventions (NPIs) could lead to a further epidemic wave if it is not done cautiously.”
But they added: “The risk associated with a further wave is reduced if there is high vaccine coverage, particularly amongst the most vulnerable groups, and if community prevalence and hospital occupancy are reduced to low levels before relaxation happens.
“Any changes should be gradual and carefully monitored.”
The experts also said that modelling studies on Covid-19 in university settings suggest that students are more susceptible to higher rates of coronavirus transmission, because they are “highly connected through their courses and accommodation”.
They also said the impact of staggering the return of students to higher education establishments “is likely to have limited effect to reduce the expected level of transmission”.
The Sage scientists noted: “Evidence shows the importance of a combination of measures to identify and contain infection, and to support students during outbreaks.
“Studies indicate large-scale randomised testing, contact tracing and quarantine underpin successful strategies for containing campus outbreaks.”
The experts also said the recent research indicates South Asians had higher hospital admission rates during the second wave than those from white backgrounds.
They added: “Multiple studies indicate that South Asians (particularly people from Pakistani and Bangladeshi backgrounds) have had higher hospital admissions and mortality rates than those in the white majority group during the second wave.
“Although children of all ethnicities remain at low risk of severe disease, analysis from QResearch indicates that South Asian children are more likely to be admitted to intensive care than others.”