Government to formulate new strategy for exiting isolation after science advisor admits mass tests won’t be ready in time

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Ministers are scrambling to formulate a new strategy to exit the lockdown following warnings from their scientific advisor that mass tests cannot be introduced for at least a month.

Health officials said two weeks ago that more than 3.5 million antibody tests had been purchased and would be available in a few days, allowing key workers to find jobs.

These tests, hailed as “range changes” by the Prime Minister, were considered essential to the lifting of dramatic restrictions on traffic, now in place for more than two weeks.

But yesterday Professor John Bell of the University of Oxford, who advises the government on these tests, said they had so far failed – and warned that it would take at least a month before large-scale tests can be offered.

Health officials have said that social distancing measures will be reviewed after Easter, which is expected to peak.

Government sources said the review will use surveillance data – which measures the prevalence of the virus in a sample of the population – and the latest statistics on hospitalizations and deaths, to assess whether interventions need to be relaxed or reinforced.

But scientists have suggested that the restrictions are unlikely to be lifted en masse soon, as tests show who has developed immunity stays months off.

Next week, the government and its advisers will examine if the modes of transmission of the virus would allow them to modify the restrictions, in the weeks and months to come.

Options include regional variations in rules, so areas believed to have experienced the worst of the crisis may see easing restrictions first.

Alternatives to the study could see full foreclosures alternated with less stringent restrictions in the waves, in an effort to manage pressures on the NHS, while avoiding some of the worst economic spinoffs.

Scottish ministers suggested that even if full restrictions could remain in place for three months, the easing of the rules could see a “phased” approach, with advice on seeing relatives, but recommendations against wider socialization.

But yesterday, the chief medical officer of England – returning to work after more than a week of isolation, with symptoms of coronavirus – said it would be a “mistake” to discuss these options again.

Professor Chris Whitty, at the daily Downing Street press conference, said that despite the forecasts, the peak could reach Easter, which was not necessarily the case.

And he said, “The main thing is to get to the point where we are convinced that we have reached the summit and that is now beyond the summit, and at this point I think it is possible to have a serious discussion on all the things we need to do step by step to move to the next phase of managing this.

“But I think starting to have this discussion until we are convinced that this is where we are, I think it would be a mistake. “

Professor Whitty suggested that an effective antibody test would be more effective between 21 and 28 days after those exposed to it had been exposed to the virus – meaning they were needed “later” in the epidemic, when the virus had spread more widely.

The chief medical officer said it was still too early to “start calling the point where we can move on to the next phase of this epidemic” – suggesting that strict measures may remain in place for some time.

He said planning for the next phase involved “a very large number of technical elements,” including the development of vaccines and drugs.

Scientists have repeatedly said that a vaccine is unlikely to be ready in less than a year.

Professor Dame Angela McLean, chief scientific adviser to the Department of Defense, said decisions can only be made once the data is collected.

She said, “We need a long, good series of time series data on all of these stages of infection so that we can tell what the impact of the actions taken on March 23 will be.

“It is still too early to say, we need people to continue following these instructions so that we can determine three weeks later what is really going on in hospitals.

“We need to know how well the current restrictions are working before we can say anything sensible about the next step. “

Responding to a question about whether government measures could be relaxed on a phased basis, Foreign Minister Dominic Raab said: “Obviously, we are very aware of the challenges facing businesses, from small businesses , all employers and of course the workforce.

“But the risk is that if we start to look away, fight the coronavirus, stop the spread and get past the peak, we risk delaying the moment when we could make these easing decisions in the future restrictions. “

“So it is very important at this time to continue to focus on maintaining the discipline we have had, respecting the guidelines that the government has set and ensuring that we stop the spread of the coronavirus. “

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