Scientists are urging the government to set an “acceptable level” of Covid-19 infections to help manage lockdown restrictions.
Experts have said they have been “crying out” for ministers to decide what level of infections are admissible so that the outbreak can be “managed with that in mind”.
Easing restrictions slowly
Professor Dame Angela McLean, chief scientific adviser at the Ministry of Defence, warned that lockdown restrictions should be eased slowly, as unlocking society too fast “risks disaster”.
MPs on the House of Commons Science and Technology Committee heard on Wednesday (17 February) that if a tier system is used after the current lockdown is lifted, it must be adapted.
Dame Angela criticised the government for implementing the tier system too late, with prevalence allowed to get too high before areas were moved into tougher restrictions.
She said: “What we should have done was say: ‘Look, this part of the country, the number of infections is starting to grow’, and (we should have) put them into higher tiers while their infection (rates) were still low.
“It was the way that we used the tier system that we need to do different this time – to use the tiers to act when prevalence is low but growing.”
However, scientists have said that the data is now “moving in the right direction” to allow the easing of restrictions to be considered, but this must be done slowly.
Addressing the Committee, Dame Angela said: “I think we can say very, very clearly: ‘Don’t unlock too fast’, because if you unlock a lot, while a lot of the most vulnerable are still unvaccinated, genuinely we risk disaster, quite frankly.”
“I think it’s reasonable to say: ‘Let’s not have Covid winters that are any worse than bad flu winters.’ But, actually, bad flu winters could be quite bad.
“It’s one of the things we’ve cried out for again and again – could somebody in a position of political power tell us what is an acceptable number of infections?
“Maybe this past year, maybe in 2020 where the number of infections and deaths was so high, perhaps nobody would say that.”
“We do need to decide what level is acceptable and then we can manage our lives with that in mind.”
Professor Mark Woolhouse, professor of infectious disease epidemiology at the University of Edinburgh, added: “The answer is not zero. If you take the view that no Covid death is acceptable or something of that order, you are writing a blank cheque to do any amount of harm by the measures you have implemented to try and control it.”
‘Optimistic and cautious’
Prime Minister Boris Johnson is due to set out his roadmap for easing the country out of lockdown in the week commencing 22 February, with the plan expected to include potential dates for reopening various sectors of society.
Mr Johnson is awaiting new data on the effects of the Covid-19 vaccines on infection rates, after stressing he will take a “cautious and prudent approach” to easing England’s national lockdown.
He is understood to be expecting updated evidence on how the vaccines have affected hospital admissions and deaths by the end of Friday (19 February), ahead of setting out the plan next week.
The PM has been urged to base the plan for easing restrictions on “data, not dates”, with scientists saying the current data is pointing to an “earlier unlocking”.
Prof Woolhouse said: “I completely agree that we don’t want to be overly focused on dates, not at all. We want to be focused on data. But the point I’d make about that is the data are going really well.
“The vaccination rollout is, I think, exceeding most people’s expectations, it’s going very well.
“The transmission blocking potential is key. But so, of course, is its actual ability to protect against death and disease, and to keep people out of hospital, and those numbers are looking really good.
“My conclusion from that is: If you’re driven by the data and not by dates, right now, you should be looking at earlier unlocking.”
While the vaccine rollout appears to be slowing transmission, Dame Angela warned that the government needs to remain “optimistic and cautious”, as infection rates are currently still high across the country.
She explained: “Things are all moving in the right direction: infections are falling, the number of cases are falling, hospitalisations and deaths.
“But we still stand with a high number of infections. I share everybody’s optimism about how fantastic this vaccine is. But I would say we need to be optimistic and cautious, there’s still a lot of infected people out there.”