UK

Vallance tells Boris to ‘go hard and early’ with masks and Plan B at first sign of rising numbers

Sir Patrick Vallance has called on Boris Johnson to go ‘hard and early’ and reimpose Covid restrictions at the first sign of infections rebounding in the UK.

Delivering the warning over the airwaves this morning, England’s chief scientific adviser said that the country remained in a ‘very uncertain phase’ of the pandemic.

He suggested that the Government’s winter Plan B — which includes face masks, working from home and vaccine passports — should not be taken off the table yet.

Warning against complacency, Sir Patrick told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme: ‘You need to absolutely be prepared (for plan B) and as soon as you start thinking “am I, or am I not going to do this? It looks close” is the time you need to push beyond your natural reluctance to do it and do it.

‘This is obviously something the Government will have to consider carefully but we need to be ready to move fast if that occurs.’

Sir Patrick gave the same warning to the Prime Minister at a Downing Street press conference last month, saying that failing to act will only lead to more restrictions being needed that will have to be imposed for longer. 

No10 is thought to have taken confidence from the fall in national Covid cases over the last four days and the optimistic forecasts from SAGE that infections will plummet in November amid rising immunity levels.

Official data suggests that cases started to fall among children before half-term, in a positive sign that they could soon fall in other age groups that they are passing the virus on to. 

But some medics, trade unions and Labour called for Britain to switch course and adopt Plan B restrictions immediately last week.

Ministers have held their nerve, however, insisting the NHS is not under ‘unsustainable’ pressure. Government sources said yesterday there was an about 20 per cent chance ministers would switch to Plan B.

It comes as a symptom-tracking study warned today that Britain is now ‘worryingly close’ to 100,000 cases a day. Using daily reports from almost a million Britons they estimated there were 92,953 new infections a day last week, which was up 14 per cent on the previous seven days. Its results do not capture the most recent four days, when official figures show infections started to fall in the country. 

Pictured above is the PM's winter plan. Boris Johnson has so far avoided imposing harsher measures in the country

Sir Patrick Vallance (pictured today on BBC Breakfast) said the Prime Minister should be ready to go ‘hard and fast’ if Covid cases begin to rebound. Boris Johnson has so far steered clear of bringing in his winter plan (right), saying the NHS is not under ‘unsustainable’ pressure 

LONDON SCHOOL OF HYGIENE AND TROPICAL MEDICINE: These charts show the impact of returning to normal level of social mixing in three months (bottom) versus remaining cautious for a year - and the impact this would have on infections (left), admissions (middle) and deaths (right). The models show cases plummeting by November in both scenarios thanks to natural immunity but rising in spring (bottom) when vaccine protection is expected to wane

LONDON SCHOOL OF HYGIENE AND TROPICAL MEDICINE: These charts show the impact of returning to normal level of social mixing in three months (bottom) versus remaining cautious for a year – and the impact this would have on infections (left), admissions (middle) and deaths (right). The models show cases plummeting by November in both scenarios thanks to natural immunity but rising in spring (bottom) when vaccine protection is expected to wane

Britain is ‘worryingly close’ to 100,000 cases a day, study warns

Britain is ‘worryingly close’ to 100,000 new Covid infections per day, the country’s largest symptom-tracking study warned today despite Government data showing the outbreak is in retreat.

King’s College London researchers estimated there were 92,953 people falling ill with the virus per day across the UK last week, up 14 per cent on the previous seven days.

Cases are rising across all age groups, although the proportion of cases remains highest in under-18s with nearly 44,000 infected on any given day.

There was also uptick in the rate of increase in the more vulnerable age groups 55 to 75, the researchers said.

The latest survey figures were based on data from around 43,000 lateral flow and PCR tests done between October 9 and October 23.

They cover the period where official data suggests Covid cases fell slightly among under-18s, but not the latest four days when daily Covid cases began to drop week-on-week. 

Professor Tim Spector, the epidemiologist who leads the study, warned that the Government’s figures were a ‘big underestimate’ and may be missing 40 per cent of cases.

The Department of Health’s daily reports only include cases confirmed by a PCR test — which are more reliable than lateral flow devices. They showed new infections fell for the fourth day in a row yesterday, dropping 10.6 per cent to 43,941.

SAGE member Professor John Edmunds, whose grim modelling in July predicted hospitalisations would have reached 3,500 a day by now, said the fall in cases may have been caused by rising immunity in children.

And the low numbers in the official figures have lead to Government sources claiming the chance of ministers activating their winter Covid ‘Plan B’ is less than 20 per cent.

Sir Patrick told the Today programme: ‘I think we are in a very uncertain phase. 

‘If you read the minutes of SAGE that were published last week there is considerable uncertainty in which direction this goes. 

‘It does indeed depend on the degree of immunity and the amount that’s protected by vaccines and that’s why vaccines are so important and it depends on overall behavioural change.’

He added: ‘It’s wrong to think of the build up of immunity as a sort of all or nothing. It is a protective barrier that will reduce the spread of the virus so we need to monitor this carefully over the next weeks and months.’

Asked what figures would lead him to call for more restrictions, Sir Patrick said: ‘In terms of cases, the best indication is the ONS study which is an unbiased sample. 

‘That has fewer biases than some of the testing data and it’s an important one to look at.

‘In terms of consequences, hospitalisation, the rates of people going into hospital, are really critical but there are lagging indicators so you need to bare that in mind.’

In a separate interview on BBC Breakfast, he said: ‘Nobody is really clear which direction this is going in, but they are clear about the two big variables that could change that.

‘One is waning immunity, so if immunity wanes faster than expected, you’ll see a bigger increase, and that’s why it’s so important to get booster shots going in the vulnerable and the elderly in particular.

‘The second is the behavioural change, how quickly we return to pre-pandemic behaviours… if you aggregate the models, most are saying: “Actually, it looks fairly flat, don’t expect the very big peaks we’ve had in the past, it looks fairly flat, but at a very high level at the moment”.’

‘So the high level remains a concern and from a high level you can go up quite quickly.’

Asked whether current infection levels at more than 40,000 a day were acceptable, he said: ‘Well, that’s a societal question.

‘There are high levels, and those high levels, of course, translate into levels of hospitalisation, but the levels of hospitalisation are very much reduced by vaccination.

‘The lower the levels, the better in terms of overall overall outcome, but there are costs and consequences of decisions in both directions there.

‘So that’s a societal question about what levels are acceptable.

‘I will say though – and it’s an important point to make – that, as this infection becomes gradually becomes endemic, it will occur year on year, we will see this circulating every winter, I suspect, in particular.

‘And so, gradually, as immunity builds, the protection will be there, the consequences will be reduced, but we’re not not there yet.

‘We’ve still got, clearly, people going into hospital, it’s still a significant risk.’

He said on Sky News that although the country now had an ‘armamentarium’ to combat the virus, such as vaccines and antivirals, the virus is still very much around.

He said: ‘It’s not gone across the world, it’s still very high levels in all sorts of places. We have high levels in the UK, but we are much more protected against it and that is the key thing. 

‘So, keep the protection up, keep the immunity up and hopefully drive the levels down.’

Sir Patrick warned last month that Mr Johnson should impose more restrictions than he thinks are necessary for longer than he thinks are necessary to curb the spread of the virus. 

He is yet to call for the country to change course and bring in Plan B. Despite mounting calls for the move from some corners, Britain’s scientific advisers are still yet to say tougher curbs are needed.

King's College London researchers estimated there were 92,953 people falling ill with the virus on average across the UK last week, up 14 per cent on the previous seven days

King’s College London researchers estimated there were 92,953 people falling ill with the virus on average across the UK last week, up 14 per cent on the previous seven days

Cases are high in all regions of England and highest in the North West (purple line), where they are in excess of 2,000 per 100,000 people

Cases are high in all regions of England and highest in the North West (purple line), where they are in excess of 2,000 per 100,000 people 

Boris Johnson WAS right to release all Covid curbs on Freedom Day, Professor Lockdown says 

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.

It came as a King’s College London study warned Britain was ‘worryingly close’ to 100,000 cases a day last week.

It also found cases were rising across all age groups, although the proportion remained highest in under-18s with nearly 44,000 infected on any given day.

A sharp uptick was also recorded among 55 to 75-year-olds, the most vulnerable group that is currently being offered booster shots to ramp up their immunity before the winter. 

The latest survey figures were based on data from around 43,000 lateral flow and PCR tests done between October 9 and October 23.

Professor Tim Spector, the epidemiologist who leads the study, warned that the Government’s figures were a ‘big underestimate’ and may be missing 40 per cent of cases.

He said: ‘The ZOE data shows the UK could hit 100,000 new cases sooner than expected and with no sign of a Plan B or Plan C.

‘The ZOE figures are consistently higher than the official confirmed daily cases because we get results from various sources, including self-reported lateral flow tests that are under-reported officially.

‘The Government raw figures report on PCR testing of the classical symptoms only, which miss around 40 percent of cases.

‘ZOE extrapolates the data from our sample to predict daily infections in the wider population. 

‘With the confirmation of our estimates from the ONS’s fortnightly survey, it’s clear the government figures are a big under-estimate, and with the highest rates in Western Europe, there’s no room for complacency.’

Some scientists have warned the ZOE figures should be taken with a pinch of salt because vaccines have changed the game and made the symptoms of Covid indistinguishable from other viruses.

There data covers the week before half-term — when official data suggests infections started to fall among under-18s — but it does not include the most recent four days when daily infections began to fall. 

No10 is thought to have taken heart from this, with a Whitehall source telling the Financial Times yesterday that the situation was now heading ‘in the rightr 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’.

Ministers were yesterday looking at plans to give regional public health leaders the power to bring back face masks in school communal areas, such as assembly halls and corridors, to help keep the lid on the virus. 

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. 

Scientists said a combination of booster vaccines, growing natural immunity in children and a drop in classroom mixing during the October half-term break would drag cases down. 

Department of Health data suggests Covid cases have now peaked among school children, in a positive sign that they could soon fall in other age groups that they are passing the virus on to.

Its figures are published by when people actually took their test, rather than when they got their result, which experts say is more reliable because it accounts for reporting delays. 

Cases among 10 to 14-year-olds — the age group with the highest infection rate — may have peaked on October 19 at 1,925.2 positive tests per 100,000 people. 

For 15 to 19-year-olds and five to nine year olds, the rate also hit a high on October 19 of 861.3 and 760.7, respectively.

But over the next two days that data is available official figures show the infection rate dipped in these age groups. For 10 to 14-year-olds it had fallen to 1,868.9 by the end of October 21.


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