Covid restrictions in place until the autumn, says SAGE expert

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The UK could see coronavirus restrictions for months to come as the number of deaths will continue to rise, a SAGE expert has said.

Some parts of England are showing a plateau in cases of Covid-19, while the rate of growth across the country as a whole is slowing, a senior epidemiologist has said.

Professor Neil Ferguson, whose early modelling of Covid-19 made him a key player in the UK’s first lockdown, said he thought the current wave of the epidemic may be coming under control in some regions.

However, he said restrictions of some sort could be needed for months until the coronavirus vaccines provide a high level of protection.

He told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme: “I think it’s much too early to say exactly when case numbers are going to start coming down, but in some NHS regions in England and in Wales there’s sign of plateauing.”

London in particular was seeing a drop in its number of positive coronavirus tests, alongside the South East, he said.

“At the moment, it looks like in London in particular, and a couple of other regions – the South East and east of England – (that) hospital admissions may even have plateaued, though it’s hard to tell they’re coming down.

“It has to be said this is not being seen everywhere.

“Both case numbers and hospital admissions are going up in many other areas but, overall, at a national level we’re seeing the rate of growth slow.”

Prof Ferguson, who is director of the Medical Research Council’s Centre for Global Infectious Disease Analysis at Imperial College London, said he would expect to see case numbers “continue to come down slowly at a national level” but with regional variations.

“It will take longer though for hospital admissions – daily admissions – to start coming down and even longer for hospital bed occupancy to come down,” he said.

Asked how many more weeks of rising hospital admissions and deaths the UK could be looking at, he said: “It critically depends on whether the lockdown we’re in the moment will actually control growth in all areas.

“But I would hope that hospital admissions might plateau, instead of keep going up, some time in the next week.

“Hospital bed occupancy may continue to rise slowly for up to two weeks and deaths maybe even for longer.

“We’re going to be well over 1,000 deaths a day, even measured by the date people die rather than the date deaths are reported, before numbers start coming down.”

Prof Ferguson said the total number of deaths in the UK “unfortunately is going to be well over 100,000, there’s nothing we can do about that now”.

Only about 20% of the population has been infected so far, which had resulted in 100,000 deaths, he said.

“So we have to get to very high levels of vaccine coverage in those vulnerable groups before we can reduce the risk of having basically the same number of deaths again.

“If we only get up to 70% coverage in in the elderly, for instance, that still leaves 30% unprotected plus everybody else.

“We can still get a very large epidemic, which unfortunately could kill many, many people, so what the modelling and all the analysis and all the groups feeding into Sage (Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies) says is, we need to be very cautious in how we relax restrictions and try to ensure we get as high a vaccine coverage as possible.”

Asked if there could be restrictions for many months to come, he said: “Yes, and we can’t predict all of these things in advance.

“We couldn’t have predicted this new variant coming up, but the new variant without doubt will make the relaxation of restrictions more difficult because it is substantially more transmissible.

“So it will be a gradual process to the autumn.”

Prof Ferguson suggested that the requirement to isolate after coming into contact with a person with coronavirus could be relaxed for people who have recently had the virus, such as NHS workers, but said this was “a question for policymakers”.

His comments come as some large-venue high street pharmacies, including Boots and Superdrug, begin rolling out Covid vaccines.

Six stores across England can administer the jabs from Thursday as the Government aims to hit its target of vaccinating 15m of those most at risk by mid-February.

Andrews Pharmacy in Macclesfield, Cullimore Chemist in Edgware, north London, Woodside Pharmacy in Telford, and Appleton Village pharmacy in Widnes will be in the first group to administer the injections, alongside Boots in Halifax and Superdrug in Guildford.

Boots has also received approval to open additional vaccination sites at Gloucester and Huddersfield pharmacies in January, with the option to roll out to further locations nationwide in the future.

People who are eligible for a vaccine will be contacted and invited to make an appointment through a new national booking service.

This gives them the option of having the vaccine at a pharmacy or in a GP-led vaccination centre.

The Scottish Government published its vaccine delivery plan on Wednesday evening, including details of how many doses it expects to receive for each week until the end of May, prompting a row with London, which has declined to publish its numbers.

Meanwhile, amid the warnings of struggling hospitals, the Government’s top scientist has warned the country is “in for a pretty grim period” of deaths which will not “reduce quickly”.

Chief scientific adviser Sir Patrick Vallance told ITV’s Peston programme: “The daily numbers jump around a bit but I think we are in a position now – when you look at the number of infections we’ve had over the past few weeks and how this is likely to continue, so I don’t think they’re going to drop very quickly – that I’m afraid we’re in a period of high death numbers that’s going to carry on for some weeks.

“It’s not going to come down quickly even if the measures that are in place now start to reduce the infection numbers.

“So we’re in for a pretty grim period, I’m afraid.”

Elsewhere, a new study has found that Covid infection provides some immunity for at least five months, but people may still carry and transmit the virus.

The first report from Public Health England’s Siren study found that antibodies from past infection provide 83% protection against reinfection for at least five months.

Although reinfections in people with antibodies were rare, the researchers identified 44 potential reinfections among 6,614 people who had had Covid-19 previously, putting them at risk of transmitting the virus to others.



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