UK unlikely to see a return to lockdowns – Sage scientist

·6-min read

The UK is unlikely to see a return to lockdowns and school suspensions even though winter will be “rough”, a Government scientific adviser has suggested.

Calum Semple, a member of the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage) and professor of child health and outbreak medicine at the University of Liverpool, said he thought measures such as mask-wearing could be reintroduced over the winter to deal with a spike in Covid cases.

It comes as a fellow Sage member, Professor Graham Medley, said mask-wearing “probably won’t do any good” unless it is mandatory, adding that the current Covid wave could last six weeks at its peak.

Speaking in a personal capacity, Professor Semple said the “winter bump” of Covid cases would be “miserable” due to a mixture of Covid-19 and the respiratory viruses that have not been seen for the last year as people stayed at home.

Asked on BBC Breakfast whether restrictions would come back, he said: “Possibly, and it may just be about reinforcing some common sense.

“It may be bringing back some mask-wearing in certain environments, but I don’t foresee the lockdowns or the school suspensions that we’ve seen.”

Prof Semple said he thought “there’s no right time to unlock” but suggested it was “quite realistic” that there could be up to 2,000 hospital admissions per day, as predicted in central modelling assumptions submitted to Sage.

He added: “My big message to people now is sure we’ve weakened the link between community cases and hospital cases, but that link is not broken… it’s the people that are not vaccinated that are still coming to harm.”

Of the people currently going into hospital, he said: “They’re nearly all unvaccinated, and what’s surprising is that although they’re not dying, they are suffering quite a lot of injuries, so we’re seeing a lot of kidney injuries and lung injuries in these younger people.”

Prof Semple added that he would continue to wear a face mask “particularly in enclosed areas”.

Weekly rate of new Covid-19 cases in the UK
(PA Graphics)

Meanwhile, Prof Medley, from the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, said the summer peak of coronavirus, which is predicted to hit next month, could last six weeks.

He told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme: “We’ve never seen a peak before that hasn’t been controlled.

“The intention is not to introduce a lockdown for this peak. Then we are going to see a natural peak and that may well be long and disseminated.

“So even if we don’t get up to very high numbers, the numbers that we get up to might last for several weeks, six weeks or so, in which case there’s still a considerable burden on healthcare.

“So, although we might not get over 2,000 admissions a day, if that lasts six weeks then that’s a lot of people.”

(PA Graphics)
(PA Graphics)

Prof Medley said mask-wearing “probably won’t do any good” when the Government ends the legal requirement for the protection in England on July 19.

“I personally will wear a mask to protect other people,” he said.

“I think it’s quite a reasonable thing to do, it doesn’t have a huge imposition in terms of economic impact or in terms of freedom, and I think there is evidence to suggest it does good, but only if everybody does it.

“So I think that, without the mandation, then we end up with a situation where even if the majority of people, let’s say 70% of people, wear a mask, will that actually do any good because of the 30% who don’t?

“I think that is something which still needs to be determined and discussed.

“I understand the Government’s reluctance to actually mandate it. On the other hand, if it’s not mandated, it probably won’t do any good.”

Professor John Drury, social psychologist at the University of Sussex and a member of the Scientific Pandemic Influenza Group on Behaviours (Spi-B), also told LBC radio of his concerns that the legal requirement to wear masks is being ended.

“To drop legal enforcement does send a very strong signal, because when it is legally enforced it tells us that it’s very important,” he said.

“If you remember last year, it was around this time in the summer when masks were legally enforced, before that mask usage was going up and it shot up much more once it was legally enforced.”

Asked whether there could be public “clashes” over mask-wearing, he added: “There was a paper published on this last year predicting this, because when you’ve got a situation which is slightly ambiguous – should we do it? should we not? – it’s a personal choice, then you have got the possibility of people morally criticising others on each side.”

(PA Graphics)
(PA Graphics)

Elsewhere, a World Health Organisation special envoy on Covid-19 warned it was “too early to be talking about massive relaxation or freedom” despite the UK’s rollout of vaccines.

Regarding the Government’s switch to personal responsibility, Dr David Nabarro told the Today programme: “What does urging caution mean? It’s important that everybody knows the best possible advice on how to prevent themselves being infected.

“I accept that vaccination has changed the nature of the equation in the UK, but quite honestly from any point of view it’s too early to be talking about massive relaxation or freedom when the outbreak curve is on such a sharp ascent.

“Yes, relax, but don’t have these mixed messages about what’s going on. This dangerous virus hasn’t gone away, its variants are coming back and are threatening those who have already been vaccinated – we have to take it seriously.”

However, Chief Secretary to the Treasury Stephen Barclay said there was now a need for businesses to “fire up” and it was a good time to ease restrictions.

(PA Graphics)
(PA Graphics)

“There’s no perfect time to do this,” he told Sky News.

“What we’ve done is deploy the vaccine – an extra seven million – opening when the schools are shut is seen as the optimum time to do so.

“It’s about getting that balance right, people reaching their own judgments, being sensible, following the guidance.

“But we also need to get back to normal, businesses need to fire up, we need to get the economy going, and those are important as well because there are consequences to not doing that, both economically and in terms of people’s health.”

Professor Wendy Barclay, head of department of infectious disease and chairwoman in influenza virology at Imperial College London, told a ZOE Covid Study webinar that now is the time for people to act responsibly.

She said: “We’re nearly there at the point of total social release.

People wearing protective face masks
Boris Johnson confirmed that most mandatory restrictions will end next week (PA)

“But despite whatever the rules say, and the politicians say, I think there is a level of social responsibility, particularly if you live or work with vulnerable people.

“Just keep your distance, go outside in the summer, open all the windows.

“We can ride this wave out, I hope, if we act socially responsibly.”

On Monday, Prime Minister Boris Johnson confirmed that most mandatory restrictions will end next week, though he appealed to people to proceed with caution, adding that the pandemic “is not over”.

Modelling for Sage shows that the peak of the third wave of Covid infection across England is not expected before mid-August and could lead to 1,000 to 2,000 hospital admissions per day, with deaths at 100 to 200 per day.

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