Covid: 'Make decisions dependent on circumstances' urge scientists who warn not to lift lockdown too quickly

A quiet street in Manchester. Credit: PA Wire/PA Images

Government scientists say coronavirus restrictions should not be lifted too quickly after Tory lockdown-sceptics called for a lifting of rules by the end of May.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson has committed to setting out his plan for England's restrictions on February 22.

Professor Graham Medley, chairman of the Scientific Pandemic Influenza Group on Modelling (Spi-M), urged ministers to “make decisions dependent on the circumstances, rather than being driven by a calendar of wanting to do things.”

Boris Johnson at the despatch box during Wednesday’s Prime Minister’s Questions Credit: UK Parliament/Jessica Taylor/PA

This view is supported by Dr Mike Tildesley, also from Spi-M, who said it was necessary to ease lockdowns gradually to prevent a resurgence of cases and the need to implement tighter controls.

It comes after former health secretary Jeremy Hunt told the Guardian that ministers should take a cautious approach to lifting the lockdown so that new coronavirus cases can be driven down to 1,000 a day.

Government minister James Cleverly told ITV News decisions around lockdown easing were "guided by the science".

"Ultimately - exactly what, exactly how, exactly when, will be guided by the science".

Annaliese Dodds, Shadow Chancellor of the Exchequer, warned that the government should only lift lockdown when it is ready to do so and when it has its test, trace and isolate system fixed.

Speaking to BBC Radio 4’s Today programme in a personal capacity, Prof Medley said watching case numbers was still important even though vaccines would protect the elderly and most vulnerable.

“Vaccination offers a way out and does reduce the impact of infection, but it doesn’t remove it completely,” he said.

“And so case numbers are still important because they represent the risk of having to go back into some kind of national measures.”

Covid-19 vaccines being prepared for Health and social care workers Credit: Owen Humphreys/PA

Asked whether case numbers needed to be as low as 1,000 a day, he said: “Clearly the lower the numbers of cases are, the more time you have to react if things start to go badly wrong.

“If the case numbers are very high, if they’re as high as they are at the moment, for example, then you will have very little time in which to react to avoid the kind of national lockdown that we’re in at the moment, which nobody wants.”

Dr Tildesley told Times Radio it was important “to avoid a yo-yo situation where we unwrap things too rapidly, we get a resurgence and we have to lock down again”.

A nationwide lockdown was brought forward following a sharp rise in Covid cases Credit: PA

He added: “The real concern here and where we really need to be careful is that it all comes down to R number.

“As soon as we start to relax, things go up. The key thing for me is we need to get our children back to school first – that’s clearly the most important thing.

“But I would really encourage it needs to be gradual stepping out of lockdown so that we don’t get a resurgence as we move into the spring.”

(PA graphic) Credit: PA graphic

Pressed on whether outdoor socialising next month seemed reasonable, he said “a little bit more mixing outdoors” might be reasonable but would need “very clear messaging from the Government”.

He added: “I really appreciate the need for people getting back some level of normalcy. My concern is a resurgence by doing that, which will lead to a much greater problem as we get into the spring.”

Dr Tildesley said the Government would need to look at national case rates per day for unlocking, as well as local rates, plus hospital occupancy and the R rate.

Hundreds used specialist testing centres set up to help detect the South African Covid variant.

“I think we need to look at all of these indicators – if they get as low as possible we can really prevent the risk of the resurgence, then I think that’s the point to unlock.”

Speaking to the BBC news channel, Dr Ian Higginson, vice president of the Royal College of Emergency Medicine, said his organisation “could not be more firmly in camp caution… this could all go Pete Tong really easily”.

On Thursday, Mark Harper, chairman of the Covid Recovery Group of lockdown-sceptic backbenchers, said all restrictions should be lifted once the first nine priority groups – including all over-50s – have received their first vaccine dose.

Asked on BBC Radio 4’s World At One when he saw “life returning to normal”, he said: “I think it’s paced with vaccine rollout.

(PA graphic) Credit: PA graphic

“Back-of-the-envelope calculations that I did based on two million doses a week, you could get the top nine (priority) groups, first doses, and the top four groups, second doses, all done by the end of May.

“So it seems to me by the time you get to the end of May, no later than that, you should be in a position to get rid of restrictions completely.

“But obviously it does depend on the rollout of the vaccine.”

Sir Graham Brady, Chairman of the 1922 Committee of Tory backbenchers Credit: Victoria Jones/PA

Sir Graham Brady, the chairman of the backbench 1922 Committee, has also said the Government is in danger of falling out of step with public opinion if it delays the opening of schools in England to March 8 as planned.

In his interview with the Guardian, Mr Hunt, who is chairman of the health select committee, said the Government should aim to suppress Covid cases so that intensive contact tracing can work.

Mr Hunt said: “The Koreans and the Taiwanese have kept their economy open. All their restaurants are open, because they’ve kept case transmission low, and we just need to do what it takes to get to that point. And for me, where I’m at on that is that you just need to get it down to 1,000 new infections a day or less.”

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