Allowing virus cases to rise is a ‘significant risk’, restrictions may need to return this winter and life may never return completely to normal, Government scientists warned last night.
In a downbeat assessment, the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage) said that even if hospitalisations and deaths remained low, there were major risks in letting cases surge.
The group said that should a ‘variant of concern’ arrive that threatened immunity, lockdown restrictions would need to reimposed for much longer.
In documents released last night which advised on controlling the virus long-term, Sage warned that some ‘baseline measures’ may have to stay, with ‘sustained behavioural change’ necessary.
Sir Patrick Vallance Government Chief Scientific Adviser and Chief Medical Officer (CMO) for England, Chris Whitty, attend Downing Street Covid press conference
The experts said self-isolation when ill would remain ‘critical’ and working from home was a ‘highly effective’ long-term option. And in a grim sign that Britons face a return of some curbs in the near future, Sage added: ‘Stronger measures may be desirable for autumn and winter.’
Cases on rise but ‘the NHS will cope’
The NHS will meet the challenge of rising Covid cases and ‘learn to live with’ the virus, health leaders insisted yesterday.
Professor Chris Whitty said that there is likely to be a surge in hospital admissions as Britain unlocks and the health service will also face a ‘very tricky winter’. But he added that the NHS ‘will cope with anything’.
There are currently 1,905 Covid-19 patients in NHS hospitals. This is double the number of one month ago, but down from a peak of almost 40,000 in January. Professor Whitty said hospital admissions could reach ‘quite high numbers’ but are unlikely to be as bad as previous waves.
Latest data shows infections are up 53 per cent in a week and yesterday another 27,335 cases and nine deaths were recorded in the UK.
NHS England’s medical director Professor Stephen Powis said: ‘We’re well used to coping with pressures. We are prepared and, as you have seen over the last 18 months of the pandemic, the NHS will manage.’
At a press conference last night chief medical officer Chris Whitty said some social distancing would still be required beyond July 19.
In a sign of his concern, he said the epidemic was ‘clearly significant and rising’ and emphasised that decisions were ‘made by ministers, not by scientific advisers or medical advisers’.
He added: ‘Within the scientific views on this, there was a really clear consensus that under all circumstance some degree of further social distancing needs to be maintained even after the restrictions are lifted in law.’
It suggests Boris Johnson’s plan to lift all restrictions on July 19 may be at odds with the views of some of his scientific advisers, although Downing Street insists most of the PM’s advisers back his approach. Sage said there were ‘many advantages’ to keeping infections down even with low hospitalisation and death rates.
It said: ‘It makes it easier to prevent a return to rapid growth in the epidemic which could lead to the NHS being overwhelmed.
‘Lower infection rates will also reduce impact of post-Covid syndromes and allow more NHS capacity to be used for routine care. There is significant risk in allowing prevalence to rise, even if hospitalisations and deaths are kept low by vaccination.
‘If it were necessary to reduce prevalence to low levels again (eg. because of a new variant of concern) then restrictive measures would be required for much longer.’
Infections are currently at the highest level since January, and Mr Johnson acknowledged they are likely to reach 50,000 a day within a fortnight and that hospitalisations and deaths will keep rising.
He said: ‘I don’t want people to feel this the end of Covid – it is very far from the end.’ Officials have consistently said there can be no complete return to pre-pandemic life after July 19.
Sir Patrick Vallance, the chief scientific adviser, said people must change their behaviour in light of rising cases. He said: ‘We are in the face of an increasing epidemic at the moment and therefore we need to behave accordingly.’
One Sage document assessing what long-term or ‘baseline’ measures will be needed after July 19 said: ‘Keeping some level of measures in place both through summer and beyond would significantly decrease ongoing transmission.’
It concluded that ongoing measures and sustained long-term behavioural change will be required to control a resurgence in infections – particularly in the winter.
The scientists said self-isolation ‘needs to become routine’ for anyone with symptoms, quarantine after international travel is ‘important’ and local measures, potentially including lockdowns, will be needed ‘in all scenarios’.
They also concluded that working from home is highly effective at cutting the spread and recommended ongoing physical distancing and the use of masks.
The Chief Medical Officer said hospitals could be in for a ‘very difficult’ period over the colder months as they grapple with spikes in Covid and flu admissions, as well as the normal winter pressures.
Professor Whitty said: ‘The winter is inevitably going to be tricky and the NHS is likely to have both Covid and some resurgence of other respiratory viruses that were suppressed by the degree of lockdown last time round.
Prof Whitty and Sir Patrick both suggested they would wear masks on crowded rail services even after July 19
‘So I think we should be realistic and this coming winter may be very difficult for the NHS.’
Asked directly if Covid restrictions could go into reverse, Mr Johnson said he would ‘have to take whatever steps we need to do to protect the public’.
It came despite the PM previously promising the roadmap out of lockdown would be ‘irreversible’.
Professor Whitty admitted that SAGE was still split over whether the final stage of the roadmap should go ahead because the epidemic is still growing.
But he warned that delaying the reopening any further could push the the third wave into the winter and cause an even larger peak.
The CMO acknowledged there was a ‘mixed’ view among scientists on the timing of lifting restrictions, and that he had ‘quite a strong view’ that doing so in summer has advantages over autumn.
He said: ‘The view is more mixed about exactly what the right timing is from a technical point of view, even before you get into issues that the Prime Minister has to deal with more widely.
‘And these really come from the fact that at a certain point, you move to the situation where instead of actually averting hospitalisations and deaths, you move over to just delaying them.
‘So you’re not actually changing the number of people who will go to hospital or die, you may change when they happen.
‘And there is quite a strong view by many people, including myself actually, that going in the summer has some advantages, all other things being equal, to opening up into the autumn when schools are going back and when we’re heading into the winter period when the NHS tends to be under greatest pressure for many other reasons.
‘So it’s a very much more difficult technical decision now, even before ministers have to grapple with all the other things, than it was in terms of the four-week delay where I think there was a very substantial degree of scientific agreement.’
Both Professor Whitty and Sir Patrick Vallance, No10’s chief scientific adviser are among those arguing that ‘if not now then when’.