Concerns Raised Over Easing of Lockdown Restrictions

Peter Russell

June 01, 2020

Scientific advisers to the Government have warned of the dangers of easing lockdown restrictions too far and too fast if the public is to be protected from a second wave of the COVID-19 pandemic.

From today, groups of up to six people can meet up outside in England as long as they abide by social distancing measures, while primary schools are able to reopen for some age groups.

At the same time, around 2.2 million clinically extremely vulnerable people who have been 'shielding' will be able to leave self-isolation to spend more time outdoors.

Other UK nations are taking their own steps to ease lockdown restrictions.

Communities Secretary Robert Jenrick told Sunday's daily Downing Street briefing that the changes in England were "modest", and that the Government was "reasonably confident" that the steps would be manageable.

'Risky' Measures

Prof John Edmunds, from the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine, told a briefing convened by the Science Media Centre (SMC) on Friday, that levels of COVID-19 were still high and described the decision to change the rules as "political".

He said that latest survey data from the Office for National Statistics suggested there were 8000 new cases of the disease each day.

He warned: "With relatively high incidence, and relaxing the measures, and also with an untested track and trace system, I think we are taking some risk here."

Prof Edmunds, who attends meetings of the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (SAGE), said: "And even if that risk doesn't play out, so that we are managing to keep the incidence flat, we're keeping it flat at quite a high level."

His analysis was supported by Prof Jeremy Farrar, director of the Wellcome Trust, who agreed that COVID-19 was spreading too fast to lift the lockdown in England. He tweeted that test, trace, and isolate "has to be in place, fully working, capable [of] dealing with any surge immediately".

Prof Peter Openshaw, a member of the Government's New and Emerging Respiratory Virus Threats Advisory Group (NERVTAG), said on Sunday: "I think I share with virtually all my scientific colleagues a deep concern that we need to go with great caution.

"At the moment, we still have quite a large number of cases out there in the community. And I think unlocking too fast carries a great risk that all the good work that's been put in by everyone to try to reduce transmission may be lost. So, we do need to proceed with great, great care at this point."

Prof Openshaw, an immunologist from Imperial College London, told the Andrew Marr programme on BBC TV that there was a "pretty unanimous message now that we need to take this slowly and go step by step" and "evaluate the effect of each step before we move to the next one".

Speaking at yesterday's daily briefing, Dr Jenny Harries, England's deputy chief medical officer, warned: "This is a really, really critical time."

Echoing her colleague, Prof Jonathan Van-Tam, who urged the public at the weekend "not to tear the pants out of" loosened lockdown measures, Dr Harries said "it is not just about what it is possible to do, it's about what it is sensible to do".

'A Political Decision'

Estimates of the current reproductive (R) rate for COVID-19 were between 0.7 and 0.9, according to Prof Edmunds, who models transmission and control of infectious disease.

If R was to rise from its current post-lockdown levels to 1, the number of new cases could remain around the current 8000 daily level. "If there's a 1% infection fatality rate, that's about 80 deaths per day," he said. "If there's a half a percent, that's 40 deaths per day."

He added: "It's a political decision as to where we set that", and "not a scientific decision".

Writing in the The Telegraph on Saturday, Sir Patrick Vallance, the Government's chief scientific adviser, and prominent member of COBRA, said science advice to the emergency committee and to Government "needs to be direct and given without fear or favour".

He added: "But it is advice. Ministers must decide and have to take many other factors into consideration. In a democracy, that is the only way it should be. The science advice needs to be independent of politics."

'Clear and Present Danger'

Mark Woolhouse, professor of infectious disease epidemiology at the University of Edinburgh, and a member of the SAGE modelling group, said that with eradication of SARS-CoV-2 unlikely, and in the absence of any vaccine, we were "still in the early stages of our relationship with COVID-19" and "about 5 months into what might turn out to be a lifelong relationship".

While not making any predictions about the future, "the conclusion from that is a second wave really is a clear and present danger", he told the SMC briefing.

Warm weather over the weekend saw parks and beaches packed ahead of restrictions being relaxed. The Association of Directors of Public Health said it was a sign that "the public is no longer keeping as strictly to social distancing as it was".

It said it was "increasingly concerned that the Government is misjudging this balancing act and lifting too many restrictions, too quickly."

The statement continued: "A second peak cannot be ruled out – whether it will overwhelm the NHS is an important question to ask. But perhaps the even bigger one is, do we really want the same number of deaths again?"

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