This summer’s coronavirus restrictions could be the same as last summer’s “low level” rules, Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage) advisers have said.
In a paper to Sage on 13 January, which was made public on Friday, University of Warwick scientists warned against a “full relaxation” of the lockdown before September.
The government aims to have offered a vaccine to every single adult in the UK by September, but the scientists warned this alone won’t be enough to prevent “significant further severe disease”.
However, they said it should still be possible to reduce restrictions to the “lowest level” seen last summer.
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That “lowest level” was from 4 July when, for example, pubs and restaurants reopened and limited household mixing, including overnight stays in other people’s homes, was allowed.
From 14 September onwards, though, Boris Johnson gradually increased restrictions – starting with the “rule of six” and moving to the tier system of local lockdowns – as COVID-19 infections started to increase again.
Many have argued Johnson acted too slowly and the government ultimately lost control of the virus, culminating in the third national lockdown which England remains in to this day.
The difference this summer will be the rollout of a vaccine – but the Warwick scientists warned what may happen if there is a full lifting of restrictions before September.
“With the new aggressive COVID strain,” they said in the paper, “likely transmission efficacies prove insufficient to prevent further infection outbreaks across the population.
“This means that the proportion of individuals that do not accept the vaccine together with the proportion for whom it is ineffective in protecting, may still account for significant further severe disease even after the program is completed.
“We see that even with the highest possible uptake and fastest vaccination program, full relaxation by the time schools return in September would still result in significant further disease.
“Relaxation to much reduced measures allowing schools to operate by then seems realistic however.”
The scientists modelled a scenario where if restrictions are reduced to the “lowest level we have seen so far in the outbreak, as seen in late summer last year”, it will still be possible to emerge in September with “very minimal further disease burden”.
Boris Johnson has repeatedly said 8 March is the earliest date England’s lockdown restrictions may start to be eased – including the top priority of reopening schools – but he hasn’t said when it could be fully lifted.
Earlier this week, health secretary Matt Hancock outlined four factors which will decide when the lockdown ends: deaths, hospitalisations, new variants of the virus and the vaccine rollout.
England’s chief medical officer Prof Chris Whitty, meanwhile, is known for regularly urging extreme caution, and has previously stated restrictions should be lifted gradually, and that curbs won’t just “suddenly stop”.
According to reports on Friday, outdoor socialising and sport could return “within weeks” of schools reopening.
A “roadmap” detailing the stages of easing lockdown is set to be published on 22 February.
Watch: What you can and can't do during England's third national lockdown