Warnings have been issued for the UK government to consider bringing in tighter coronavirus lockdown rules to avert a surge in deaths from a new strain of the disease.
Andrew Hayward, a leading epidemiologist who sits on the government’s New and Emerging Respiratory Virus Threats Advisory Group (Nervtag), spoke on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme to urge the need for more tough restrictions.
“We’re entering a new dangerous phase of the pandemic and we’re going to need decisive, early, national action to prevent a catastrophe in January and February. A 50 percent increase in transmissibility means that the previous levels of restrictions that worked before won’t work now and so Tier 4 restrictions are likely to be necessary or even higher than that”.
Professor Hayward, who is also the director of the UCL’s Institute for Epidemiology, added that the unfolding situation suggested the country might be staring at a “near lockdown”, as he advised that lessons be learned from the first lockdown.
At the same time, the scientist acknowledged that lockdowns could only really work if you can “afford” them.
"We need to be able to make people who can’t afford to protect themselves and contribute to control to be able to do that. We need to incentivise isolation, we need to think about the social aspects of this disease and how it’s dividing our society”.
Professor Hayward added:
“From a purely epidemiological point of view, it makes a lot of sense to keep schools closed for longer and introduce more stringent testing in them”.
‘Nuclear’ Option Not Ruled Out
The remarks were made as health experts in the UK and US have been warning of the potential dangers of the new coronavirus strain, first registered in the UK, which according to one British study is 50 percent to 74 percent more contagious.
Named “VUI – 202012/01”, it includes a genetic mutation in the “spike” protein, which is what current vaccines target.
The strain is already believed to have reached a number of countries, including Italy, Sweden, France, Spain, Switzerland, Germany, Canada, Japan, prompting more than 50 countries to impose travel restrictions on the UK.
UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson, who expanded the strictest level of COVID restrictions on 26 December, is preparing to review the tiered measures for England on 30 December. Reportedly, millions more people are set to face the highest Tier 4 level of restrictions, which currently over 40 percent of the population are placed under.
In line with these rules, non-essential retail and hospitality have been closed, with additional travel restrictions imposed to curb the new strain of the virus. People mostly cannot meet in person, while those who need to travel for education or childcare are exempt.
Where people cannot work from home, they are allowed to travel to work. However, Tier 4 residents must not stay overnight away from home, and cannot travel abroad.
Under the measures, households are not allowed to mix, but one person is allowed to meet with one other person outside in a public space.
The prime minister has also not ruled out the prospect of a third national lockdown. While earlier openly averse to such a course of action, which he dubbed the “nuclear” option, after Monday registered 41,385 new infections in the UK, Downing Street is under pressure to delay the reopening of schools on 4 January after the Christmas break.