A senior adviser to the UK government has announced that social distancing measures in the country may be relaxed within a matter of weeks amidst signs that the spread of the Coronavirus may be slowing.
Professor Neil Ferguson, a British epidemiologist who has been advising Boris Johnson’s government on its response to the Coronavirus epidemic, told BBC Radio 4 that the number of Brits with the disease is expected to plateau in 7-10 days, and then following that, social distancing measures may be loosened.
“The critical thing first is to get case numbers down, and then I'm hopeful... in a few weeks' time we will be able to move to a regime which will not be normal life, let me emphasise that, but will be somewhat more relaxed in terms of social distancing and the economy, but relying more on testing,” Professor Ferguson told the BBC.
However, Mr Ferguson also sounded a note of caution, adding that “we still think things will plateau but we'll be at quite high levels of infection for weeks and weeks rather than seeing quite a rapid decline as the type seen in China.”
A report was released by Professor Ferguson and his team of researchers last month, which predicted that unless the government acted quick to impose strict lockdown measures, then up to 250,000 people in the UK could perish from COVID-19. On the heels of that publication, Boris Johnson called for Brits to swallow the bitter pill by engaging in strict social distancing and quarantine measures.
Professor Ferguson also said during his BBC interview that he was “hopeful” that antibody tests could be ready within days. As a consequence, according to the Professor, some of the more stringent social distancing restrictions could be relaxed as access to testing should allow for contact tracing within the next few weeks.
Prof Ferguson added: “We want to move to a situation where at least by the end of May that we're able to substitute some less intensive measures, more based on technology and testing, for the complete lockdown we have now.”
Painted Into a Corner
Yet, Professor Ferguson is not the only scientist advising the government on responses to COVID-19, and not all share his optimistic assessment.
Professor Graham Medley, who works on building pandemic response models and also advises Boris Johnson, has warned that the UK has “painted itself into a corner” without an exit strategy from the Coronavirus crisis.
In a report by the Times, Professor Medley said that according to his modelling, loosening the social distancing measures by allowing people to return to work and by reopening schools would only facilitate an explosion in virus infection numbers. Moreover, he argued, no way to avoid such an outcome has yet been discovered.
Prof Medley told The Times: "This disease is so nasty that we had to suppress it completely. Then we've kind of painted ourselves into a corner, because then the question will be, what do we do now?”
“If we carry on with lockdown it buys us more time, we can get more thought put into it, but it doesn't resolve anything, it's a placeholder,” he added.
Mr Medley went on to warn that the solution may be just as terrifying as the disease itself: that the UK government may have to consider allowing people to catch the Coronavirus to prevent an indefinite shutdown of the country and its economy. He added that Prime Minister Boris Johnson will have a “big decision” to make on April 13 when the nationwide lockdown will be reviewed.
Many health professionals in the UK argue that mass-testing is vital to stem the spread of Coronavirus. So far, approximately 10,000 tests are being carried out per day. The government’s Health Secretary, Matthew Hancock, has committed to carrying out 100,00 per day by the end of April. Yet, doubts remain as to whether such an ambitious goal is possible considering the chronic shortage of supplies.