UK COVID-19 Update: Traffic Light System for Foreign Travel, Vaccines 'Saving Lives'

Peter Russell

April 09, 2021

These are the UK coronavirus stories you need to know about today.

Traffic Light System for Foreign Travel

People in England have been told they can start to think about booking a holiday abroad this summer.

Grant Shapps, the Transport Secretary, announced today that a traffic light system would be introduced to categorise destination countries according to risk from COVID.

He said key factors in the assessment would be the percentage of their population that have been vaccinated, infection rates, the prevalence of variants of concern, and the country's access to reliable scientific data and genomic sequencing.

Mr Shapps told BBC Radio 4's Today programme: "This is the first time I'm able to come on and say I'm not advising against booking foreign holidays."

The announcement followed a report by the Global Travel Taskforce that investigated how foreign travel might resume.

Under the proposed scheme, restrictions for inbound passengers, including 10-day managed quarantine, home quarantine, and stringent testing would remain in place. However, the rules would apply differently depending on whether the destination visited was categorised as 'green', 'amber', or 'red'.

  • Green: arrivals will need to take a pre-departure test as well as a polymerase chain reaction (PCR) test on or before day 2 of their arrival back into the UK - but will not need to quarantine on return (unless they receive a positive result) or take any additional tests

  • Amber: arrivals will need to quarantine for a period of 10 days and take a pre-departure test, and a PCR test on day 2 and day 8 with the option for 'test to release' on day 5 to end self-isolation early

  • Red: arrivals will be subject to restrictions currently in place for 'red list' countries which include a 10-day stay in a managed quarantine hotel, pre-departure testing and PCR testing on day 2 and 8

Ministers said they would set out which countries would be on which list early next month, as well as confirming whether international travel could resume from May 17.

Farewell R?

The Office for National Statistics (ONS) infection survey latest estimates for the week to 3 April show:

  • 1 in 340 in England had COVID-19

  • 1 in 410 people in Scotland had COVID-19

  • 1 in 800 people in Wales had COVID-19

  • 1 in 300 people in Northern Ireland had COVID-19

Sarah Crofts from ONS said: "We’re continuing to see a mixed picture across the UK, with infection rates decreasing in Wales and Scotland but appearing level in Northern Ireland.

"In the last few weeks, we have seen a broadly level trend in infections in England. This isn’t that surprising, given that we have seen the infection rate fluctuate over the most recent weeks across different age groups and regions. This week, for example, we are seeing an increase in those aged 50 to 69 years, decreases in the South West and North East, and numbers increasing in the South East region.

"The next week will see further lockdown restrictions eased in England as shops and restaurants start opening up again, so it’s vital that we are monitoring the levels of infection to see the impact of these changes in the coming weeks."

The UK's R number has usually been updated on a Friday. However, this afternoon the SAGE website said: "No UK estimates for R and growth rate have been agreed by SAGE." 

Commenting via the Science Media Centre, Kevin McConway, emeritus professor of applied statistics, The Open University, said: "This is the second week running that SAGE have not agreed overall figures for the R number and the growth rate for the whole of the UK, and in fact they now say that such figures “will no longer be produced”.  I think that’s reasonable – the way that the pandemic is moving is different in different UK countries, and the decisions on control measures are mostly made by the relevant governments and are not the same in the different countries, so combining data for all four countries doesn’t make much sense now, and arguably never made all that much sense."  

Regular COVID Testing

People in England are being urged to begin regular testing for COVID-19 as free lateral flow testing kits are made available.

A campaign across TV, radio, and social media will encourage the public to take two tests a week, the Department of Health and Social Care (DHSC) said.

The move comes days before a significant easing of lockdown restrictions in England, when non-essential retail, hairdressers, and pubs and restaurants with outside seating are allowed to re-open.

Matt Hancock, England's Health Secretary, said: "Alongside the successful roll-out of the vaccination programme, rapid testing will be one of our most effective weapons in tackling this virus and ensuring we can cautiously reopen our economy and parts of society that we have all missed."

From Sunday April 11, the 'Hands, Face, Space, Fresh Air' campaign will be modified to remind people to use the NHS COVID-19 app to check in to premises, including outdoor hospitality, hairdressers, and gyms.

The DHSC said that a recent analysis by NHS Test and Trace showed that for every 1000 rapid lateral flow tests carried out, there was fewer than one false positive result. It said the tests were very effective in finding people who do not have symptoms of COVID-19 but were very likely to transmit it.

Wales Accelerates Easing of Lockdown Rules

The Welsh Government has brought forward plans to relax pandemic restrictions by a week in response to falling cases of COVID-19.

People in Wales will be able to take part in organised outdoor activities and hold outdoor wedding receptions from April 26.

From May 3, a week earlier than previously announced, gyms, leisure centres, and fitness facilities will be able to reopen for individual or one-to-one training. Two households will also be allowed to meet indoors from that date.

Other lockdown restrictions will be lifted on Monday April 12, allowing the full return of children to classrooms, the reopening of all non-essential retail, and the lifting of travel restrictions into and out of Wales.

Mark Drakeford, the Welsh First Minister, said: "Cases of the virus are falling and our incredible vaccination programme continues to go from strength to strength."

Cases of COVID-19 have fallen from 37 to 21 cases per 100,000 people, the Welsh Government said.

On Wednesday, Wales became the first country in the UK to begin a rollout of the Moderna COVID vaccine.

Vaccine Programme 'Saving Lives'

The COVID-19 vaccination programme has prevented 10,400 deaths in people aged 60 and over in England, according to new figures.

The analysis by Public Health England (PHE) suggested that by the end of March, 9100 deaths were prevented in those aged 80 and over, 1200 in people in their 70s, and 100 in the 60 to 69 age group.

Over 15 million vaccine doses were given to people aged 60 and older from December 8 2020 to the end of March this year. Of those, 13 million were first doses and 2 million were second doses.

The PHE analysis estimated the impact of the vaccination programme by combining data on vaccine effectiveness against mortality and the vaccine coverage. Observed deaths were then adjusted by the impact to estimate the daily expected deaths in the absence of vaccination.

Vaccine effectiveness against mortality was based on PHE's estimate of a combined effectiveness against mortality of 81% following vaccination. It also assumed it would take 31 days before the effect of vaccination on deaths would be seen.

Dr Mary Ramsay, PHE Head of Immunisation, commented: "This latest analysis is further evidence that the COVID-19 vaccinations are continuing to prevent hundreds of deaths every day. I would encourage anyone who is offered a vaccine to take it as soon as possible."

Mental Health 'Crisis' for Children and Teenagers

Young people have been worst affected by mental health problems during the pandemic, the Royal College of Psychiatrists (RCP) said.

An analysis using NHS Digital data found that between April and December last year, 80,226 more children and young people were referred to mental health services, up by 28% on 2019, to 372,438. 

It also found that 600,628 more treatment sessions were given to children and young people, up by a fifth on 2019, to 3.58 million.

A total of 2.2 million adults have sought help for mental health problems during the pandemic, the RCP said.

It called for an additional £500 million of Government funding to help tackle the problem.

Dr Bernadka Dubicka, chair of the child and adolescent faculty at the RCP, said: "Our children and young people are bearing the brunt of the mental health crisis caused by the pandemic and are at risk of lifelong mental illness.  

"As a frontline psychiatrist I’ve seen the devastating effect that school closures, disrupted friendships, and the uncertainty caused by the pandemic have had on the mental health of our children and young people. 

"Services were already struggling to cope with the number of children needing help before the pandemic hit, and they risk being overrun unless [the] Government ensures the promised money reaches the frontline quickly." 
 

Government Urged to Address Body Image Anxieties

MPs have criticised the Government's obesity strategy after hearing evidence that lockdowns have had a "devastating" impact on negative body image.

An inquiry by the Commons Women and Equalities Committee also called for the use of BMI as a tool for measuring whether a person's weight was healthy to be scrapped.

The report said that restrictions because of the pandemic had intensified body image anxieties and increased the risk of eating disorders. It said the Government's approach was "at best ineffective and at worst perpetuating unhealthy behaviours".

Caroline Nokes (Con, Romsey & Southampton North), the committee chair, said: "The use of BMI as a measure of healthy weight has become a kind of proxy or justification for weight shaming. This has to stop."

The report called for the adoption of a 'health at every size' approach to prioritise lifestyle choices over correcting weight. It also demanded action on doctored photos in the media, which it said promoted unrepresentative and unobtainable body images.

"The pressure will intensify as gyms and beauty salons reopen on Monday," said Ms Nokes. "This may be exciting for some but it will be difficult for people who experience body image anxieties."

Sunshine Linked to Better COVID Outcomes

Living in a sunnier area might be associated with fewer deaths from COVID-19 than being under cloudier skies, new research suggests.

Researchers from the University of Edinburgh said getting UVA rays could be a useful precaution for people if further studies support the findings.

They said the lower mortality rates under sunnier skies could not be explained by higher levels of vitamin D, as only areas with insufficient levels of UVB to produce significant vitamin D in the body were included in the study.

The study, published in the British Journal of Dermatology, suggested that the lower number of deaths could have been caused by a release of nitric oxide by the skin during sun exposure, reducing the ability of the SARS-CoV-2 virus to replicate.

Previous research from the same group showed that increased sunlight exposure was linked to improved cardiovascular health and lower blood pressure.

The observational research recorded all COVID-19 deaths in the US from January to April 2020 with the sun's UV levels for 2474 US counties for the same period. Confounding factors, such as age, ethnicity, and socio-economic status were taken into consideration.

Prof Chris Dibben, chair in health geography at the University of Edinburgh, and a study co-author, said: "The relationship between COVID-19 mortality, season, and latitude has been quite striking. Here we offer an alternative explanation for this phenomenon."

See more global coronavirus updates in Medscape’s Coronavirus Resource Centre.

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