After rocking the possibility of a mini-lock to break the chain of transmission of the coronavirus, Boris Johnson opted for a much softer strategy.
England’s new Covid restrictions – which allow pubs and restaurants to stay open and households to continue to mix – have been greeted by scientists with responses ranging from praise to desperation.
Dame Anne Johnson, professor of infectious disease epidemiology at University College London, said rapid action was essential to stop the growth of the epidemic. While she is “happy” to see swift action and recognizes the difficulty of balancing the risks of viral spread with other “collateral damage,” Professor Johnson says there are concerns it will not work .
It may be that heightening the need for people to limit their contact with others will be enough to change the course of the virus. Otherwise, decisions to implement stricter rules would have to be taken very quickly.
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“We need to know if it is working very fast,” she said.
Stop the virus in its tracks?
If you just look at the transmission of the virus, it’s clear that the tighter the lockdown, the better. Scientists in this camp fear that the new measures will be “too little, too late”.
Government adviser Professor John Edmunds told BBC Radio 4’s Today program that the new measures did not go “far enough”.
“We have to put strict measures in place and it is really important that we [do so] as quickly as possible. If we don’t, the epidemic doubles and doubles again. And then it doubles again and so on.
Professor Edmunds believes tighter restrictions will occur across the UK “at some point, but it will still be too late … and then we will have the worst of both worlds”. At this point, to “slow down the epidemic and bring it back again”, the restrictions will have to be tougher and stay in place longer, he said.
CURRENT EXPLICATORS (Titles updated on 02/09/20)
But Paul Hunter, professor of medicine at the University of East Anglia, said if controlling the outbreak was the only thing that mattered, “we would come back to the situation in the last week of March.” The downside, he said, would be depriving our six-month-old children of their education.
“We must follow a path that minimizes the economic and educational damage while removing the virus as much as possible,” he said.
He says the new measures are unlikely to be enough to bring the epidemic back into decline, even if they may reduce transmission.
“Is that going to control the virus so that it doesn’t continue to grow?” Very clearly no, ”he said. “But the question is, is that going to make it increase more slowly?” ”
What is uncertain is how many cases will increase and whether protection for vulnerable people will be possible.
Prioritize jobs – and schools
Professor Carl Heneghan of the Center for Evidence-Based Medicine at the University of Oxford goes further.
Ahead of the publication of the new restrictions, Professor Heneghan jointly signed a letter to the Prime Minister describing the idea of removing the coronavirus as “increasingly unworkable”.
And, he said, it resulted in “significant damage across all age groups, which probably negates all the benefits.”
Instead, Professor Heneghan believes it’s time to control the spread rather than suppress it, and accept that the cases will increase.
Importantly, he doesn’t disagree with his colleagues on the science here. His comments agree that a tougher lockdown would cut business, at least for a while. And more flexible restrictions would allow them to increase. But he believes the goal now is to “minimize social disruption” while managing the virus.
If the government rushes into “more action,” he says, “we will refer to a lockdown which for an entire society is extremely disruptive.”
What about the NHS?
From the start, one of the main motivations for keeping cases low has been the need to protect the NHS from overflow. In the spring, that meant shutting down non-Covid services to prioritize tackling the virus and preventing the spread of infection.
But another fear soon arose – that damage from missed cancer surgeries, screenings and other types of care could nullify the benefits of the lockdown. Now, medics’ bodies are calling for restrictions to limit cases, this time to keep other services running as well.
The Royal College of Surgeons of England has said it is essential for surgery to continue through the winter, unlike the first peak of coronavirus. Its chairman, Professor Neil Mortensen, said: “The Prime Minister was right yesterday to stress the importance of protecting the most vulnerable in nursing homes and hospitals.
“Fortunately, surgery was able to restart safely in many parts of the UK… [and] we have to continue the surgery safely during the winter months, otherwise tens of thousands of people will die from other preventable causes, ”he said.
“So it’s a shared responsibility to help keep Covid rates low. ”
But the president of the British Medical Association, Dr Chaand Nagpaul, called on the government to go further.
While it was “encouraging that the government has finally recognized the need for stricter measures to control the spread of the virus,” he said, there were “a number of other measures the government could take. to prevent a second spike, ”including shutting down an unlimited number of households mixing together.
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