Ministers must act early to counter the rise in Covid infections, government science advisers have said while suggesting failing to do so could mean tougher interventions will be needed this winter.
On Thursday, the UK’s daily new Covid cases topped 52,000, the highest since July. Figures from the Office for National Statistics released on Friday show that about one in 55 people in England had Covid-19 during the week ending October 16, a level last seen in mid-January, and infection levels had increased from the previous week across all age groups except 25 to 34 year olds, where the trend was unclear.
The government has repeatedly stated that it is yet to introduce its ‘plan B’, a series of ‘light’ measures such as advice on working from home, compulsory masks in some settings and the introduction of vaccine passports. .
But documents released by the government’s Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage) on Friday show expert warnings that if action is not taken quickly as cases increase, tougher action may be needed later. .
“If the number of cases rises, earlier intervention would reduce the need for tougher, disruptive and longer lasting measures,” records a record-breaking Sage meeting held on October 14.
Experts say there are many unknowns at play regarding the trajectory of the epidemic this winter, including the rate and degree of decline in immunization protection and behavior changes. However, documents from the Sage Modeling Subgroup add that the earlier measures are adopted, the more likely they are to be lifted quickly.
“Likewise, the higher the prevalence and growth rates when the measures were introduced, the faster the hospital pressures had to be reduced, and therefore the more stringent the measures needed to do so,” explains the SPI-MO team.
The warnings match previous comments by the government’s chief scientific adviser Sir Patrick Vallance that he should ‘go strong and go early’ if cases increase to avoid a winter wave of Covid.
Although the documents emphasize the importance of vaccination, they suggest that Plan B measures may be effective.
According to a paper from the Sage Spi-M, Spi-B and EMG subgroups, “the reintroduction of homework, for those who can, may have the greatest impact on transmission outside of potential Plan B measures. “. Experts add that making the wearing of face coverings compulsory in certain settings is likely to increase their use.
However, experts are cautious about the use of vaccine passports, noting that the impact they would have is unclear and that there are concerns about the potential damage and uneven impact.
While Sage documents suggest hospital admissions for Covid are “increasingly unlikely” to exceed levels seen in January, Covid is not the only pressure hospitals are facing this winter, fearing that other respiratory infections, including the flu, don’t put the NHS under extreme pressure.
Experts also say the ability to monitor variants and explore the potential impact on vaccines is crucial. “There should be no complacency about the risk posed by a further viral development. The emergence of a variant of Delta or a variant of a different lineage that becomes dominant globally is a very real possibility, ”notes Sage minutes.
Speaking in their personal capacity, several experts who advised ministers during the pandemic expressed concerns about the government’s current approach.
Dr Ben Killingley, consultant in acute medicine and infectious diseases at UCLH, said he supports the action. “My personal feeling is that we should increase the precautions and mitigation measures, Plan B. Things are likely to deteriorate in terms of the number of cases of Covid and other viruses as we move forward. [It] It seems that the decision-makers did not understand that it was necessary to act sooner than expected, as Patrick Vallance kindly put it. I think many of my colleagues have the same point of view, ”he said.
Ravi Gupta, professor of clinical microbiology at the University of Cambridge, agreed. “Plan B should, in my opinion, be implemented given the growing and unacceptable morbidity and mortality that we are seeing, in addition to the pressures on the NHS as winter approaches. However, it will take a few weeks for the effects to appear in terms of hospitalizations and death. “