Britain must strengthen its ability to detect and contain coronavirus outbreaks if it is to avoid a potentially devastating second wave of infections this winter, senior scientists have warned.
The next two months are ‘critical’ to building a more efficient testing and traceability system and ensuring that local epidemic control teams are ready to handle the resurgence of infections that is feared as temperatures drop, the experts told the Lords scientific committee.
Even so, the country should brace itself for a cultural shift where wearing masks becomes the norm if people have colds and handshakes are “probably gone forever” according to one of the scientists.
As part of the country’s winter preparations, the public should be urged to suppress the virus as much as possible during the summer by observing social distancing rules, wearing face masks when necessary and maintaining hand hygiene. , they said.
“No matter how successful countries are in suppressing the virus, the moment the restrictions are lifted there is always a resurgence,” said Professor Venki Ramakrishnan, President of the Royal Society. “It’s not inevitable that we have a huge wave in winter, but it will happen if we are complacent and stop being vigilant.”
Ramakrishnan called for a “very strong message” on the continued need to reduce the spread of the virus and urged ministers to adopt a target of reducing the prevalence to one case per million in the population.
The latest figures released by the Office of National Statistics suggest that in England around 24,000 people contracted the virus in the week of July 12, with around 1,700 new infections per day. “All the public health measures that we have introduced now, including the use of face masks, should be maintained over the winter,” Ramakrishnan told the committee.
Professor Anne Johnson of the Academy of Medical Sciences said it was “absolutely essential” to reduce transmission in health and social care facilities, which are responsible for a substantial part of the outbreak. The number of people with symptoms similar to Covid-19 could triple in winter as influenza and other respiratory infections circulate, Johnson warned, adding that “granular and real-time monitoring” was needed to quickly identify the coronavirus epidemics.
Professor Piot, director of the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, said the government’s “top priority” must be to make nursing homes, hospitals and the wider health system “absolutely safe places” . More than 540 healthcare workers have already died from Covid-19 in England and Wales and more than 21,000 nursing home residents have succumbed to the virus.
Asked whether Britain can expect a second wave of infections in winter, Piot said: “There is no doubt that there will be more epidemics. Whether it’s a second wave, a tsunami or not, it depends on our performance. “
He told peers Britain needs to invest now in local surveillance, local decision-making and local response capacity so that outbreaks are detected early and act quickly. But in the long run, the country needed a cultural change, with masks becoming the norm when people have colds. “Shaking hands is probably forever,” he added.
While testing in hospitals and nursing homes is largely carried out by the NHS and Public Health England laboratories, community testing is being carried out at the new Lighthouse laboratories which have been set up as part of the efforts by Health Secretary Matt Hancock to massively expand testing capacity. The labs requisitioned PCR machines used to test for the virus from research labs that could have joined in the testing effort themselves.
Professor Paul Nurse, director of the Francis Crick Institute in London, told the committee that both private and public labs are desperate to help the testing effort but have been “ignored”. He said a small proportion of the tests sent to the lighthouse labs appeared to be returned within 24 hours, while everyone who worked at the Crick underwent regular testing and received a result within nine hours. “We have two months to get it right for the winter, let’s use it right,” he says.