England’s roadmap out of lockdown DID work, Neil Ferguson-led team says

England’s much criticised roadmap out of lockdown actually helped save thousands of lives, a study led by ‘Professor Lockdown’ Neil Ferguson (pictured) has claimed

Releasing all Covid restrictions on ‘Freedom Day’ may have actually helped save hundreds of lives despite outcry at the time, a study led by ‘Professor Lockdown‘ Neil Ferguson has found.  

Imperial College London researchers praised the roadmap more generally, saying that it was ‘largely successful at limiting infection levels’.  

They said No10 timed the easing of restrictions well because the dates of each step of the roadmap allowed vaccines to get into the arms of those most at risk.  

And the study said it was prudent to delay ‘Freedom Day’ nearly a month from its original date on June 26 after the emergence of the Delta variant. 

This decision alone prevented at least 2,000 hospital admissions per day, they found. This ultimately saved countless lives.

Experts previously criticised No10 for being ‘unscientific ‘ and argued Boris Johnson lifted restrictions too early on July 19.

But scientists like Professor Christ Whitty, England’s chief medical officer, said that abandoning curbs in summer would take some of the sting out of a winter wave by getting infections out of the way. 

Top graph shows: The actual R rate (black line) versus the predicted R rate (yellow line) without vaccination through each step of the roadmap out of lockdown. Bottom graph shows: Levels of immunity from natural infection (yellow), infection after natural infection and vaccination (light green) and vaccination (darker green)

Top graph shows: The actual R rate (black line) versus the predicted R rate (yellow line) without vaccination through each step of the roadmap out of lockdown. Bottom graph shows: Levels of immunity from natural infection (yellow), infection after natural infection and vaccination (light green) and vaccination (darker green)

Scientists including SAGE behavioural science subcommittee member Professor Stephen Reicher and Independent SAGE members Professors Christina Pagel and Martin McKee slammed the return to normality in July as ‘dangerous and unethical’ at the time.

And international health leaders including former Australian health department secretary Stephen Duckett warned opening up was ‘foolish’.

But the new research suggests the Prime Minister’s course was the right plan of action — even with the unanticipated problems posed by Delta.

England was one of the first countries in the West to release almost all restrictions on July 19. Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales never followed suit — with face masks a legal requirement in some settings in both countries.

‘Less than 20% chance’ No10 will activate Plan B now cases are going in the ‘right direction’, Whitehall sources say 

The chance of ministers activating their winter Covid ‘Plan B’ is less than 20 per cent, Government sources claimed today — but face masks might make a partial comeback in schools.

Despite warning last week that daily cases may rise to 100,000 this winter, Downing Street is thought to have taken confidence from the fall in national infections in recent days and optimistic forecasts by SAGE.

Scientific advisers have told the Government that the epidemic could shrink naturally next month without curbs because of a combination of the booster vaccine rollout and growing natural immunity in children.

A Whitehall source told the Financial Times today that the situation was now heading ‘in the right direction’, adding: ‘I reckon there’s a less than 20 per cent chance we’ll need to activate Plan B.’ 

Another senior Government official warned against being complacent because it is ‘too early to read a lot into the data’. But they conceded that ‘there is nothing to currently suggest we need to activate Plan B’.

UK Covid cases have fallen for four days in a row following nearly three weeks of consistent growth, with 43,941 new infections recorded today. The outbreak was being driven by children who remain largely unvaccinated.

However, there were reports today that ministers will give regional public health officials the power to order secondary schools to bring back face masks in communal areas such as assemblies and corridors after half-term next month to curb the outbreak in youngsters. 

It is not known whether children will have to wear face coverings while in the classroom again, a policy which campaign groups said hampered their learning and caused them physical harm. 

Local councils in areas with high infection rates already have the power to bring back some Covid curbs but the change could broaden the powers to entire regions of England. The Department of Health has refused to comment.

Many within SAGE are still pushing for the suite of measures in Plan B — compulsory face masks, working from home and vaccine passports — to be enforced nationally to give added protection and bring cases down quicker.

Mr Johnson and his top scientists said it was necessary to get life back to normal but also to let epidemic peak before winter.

Professor Ferguson, whose models at the start of the pandemic predicting 500,000 people would die from Covid caused the Government to impose the first lockdown, said data showed the roadmap was successful at keeping infection levels low.

He said: ‘Our analysis shows that timing the gradual relaxation of Covid restrictions to track the roll-out of vaccination was largely successful at limiting infection levels, albeit some additional challenges were posed by the rise of the Delta variant in May this year. 

‘While hospitalisations and deaths are still a fraction of what they were in January, Delta means that infections are currently higher than we would have hoped for. 

‘Rapid roll-out of booster doses and second doses in teenagers is likely to be key to maintaining control of transmission in the next few months.’ 

The team modelled different scenarios at each stage of the roadmap to analyse how lifting restrictions affected cases, hospitalisations and deaths.

When schools reopened in step one of the roadmap on March 8, all three measures continued to fall, the research showed.

Opening non-essential shops and public buildings as well as reopening pubs and restaurant for outdoors service on April 12 was also successful in preventing transmission becoming uncontrollable.

The R rate continued to remain below one because of the success of the vaccine rollout, the experts said. 

Allowing groups of six to meet indoors and ending all restrictions on meeting outdoors on Step 3 on May 17 was also found to be a safe move, with the increase in social contacts offset by increased immunity.

But while R for Alpha remained below one, the increasingly prevalent Delta variant caused R to creep higher, which saw the epidemic start to grow again.

Increasing case numbers in early July ‘likely associated with the Euro football tournament, and not as a result of step 3 of the roadmap’, the researchers said. 

Had Delta not emerged, opening up completely on June 21 as planned would not have caused a substantial third wave, the models found.

But doing so with Delta would have resulted in around 3,400 peak daily hospital admissions. It found this was reduced three-fold by delaying until July 19. 

And scientists at the time explained delaying Freedom Day any further would not not reduce the number of Covid deaths and could potentially lead to a worse peak this winter.

England’s Chief Medical Officer Professor Chris Whitty acknowledged that while some restrictions will always be better than none in terms of containing Covid, at some point they have to be released for the sake of the economy and impact on wider health.

Opening up at a later date would simply delay case numbers, experts argued, to the autumn or winter, when immunity is naturally less and infections would be more likely to translate into hospitalisations and deaths. 

Dr Raphael Sonabend said: ‘At each stage of the Covid roadmap, we modelled a wide range of scenarios to analyse how lifting restrictions may change the course of the epidemic.

‘We found that lifting restrictions in July, a month later than originally planned, successfully reduced the risk of a large autumn wave of infection, hospitalisations and deaths. 

‘If Delta had not emerged, the planned roadmap out of lockdown would have been sufficient to keep cases, severe infections, and deaths low and manageable. 

‘The latest data demonstrates the importance of a gradual increase in social mixing back to pre-pandemic levels. We remain cautiously optimistic and will continue to use our models to monitor the epidemic.’

The study predicts an increase in cases over the rest of autumn, with uncertainty over what the peak for hospitalisation and deaths might be over winter.

The levels will depend on the rollout of boosters and the vaccine to teenagers, the study said. 

Dr Marc Baguelin said: ‘In our study, we’ve shown that, despite the lifting of restrictions, until the emergence of Delta in June, the R number had remained under or close to 1 thanks to the vaccination programme. 

‘With the sudden surge of cases of the Delta variant, mathematical models gave a strong signal that a month delay was needed to catch up with vaccinations and get the roadmap back on track. 

‘While infections are still high, we are now in a much better place than a year ago. 

‘One of the lessons of our work is that mathematical models can be extremely useful in informing policy makers when an open and transparent collaboration is put in place.’

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