'Third national lockdown is emergency measure so what we do next is key' - Dr Stephen Griffin, University of Leeds' School of Medicine
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Viral oncologist Dr Stephen Griffin said the key focus now should be on what measures are put in place during this time and what steps are taken when the lockdown is lifted.
An associate professor at the University of Leeds' School of Medicine, he pointed to countries like South Korea, New Zealand and Singapore that had acted early last year and effectively limited the spread of the SARS-CoV-2 virus.
He said those nations had instigated "short, sharp" lockdowns early on and combined that with an intensive focus on isolation of those who developed Covid-19, contact tracing and testing of those travelling into the country.
And although the UK government has frequently said its response to the virus is led by science, Dr Griffin said its own policies had always been a factor in the decisions reached.
He said: "They clearly listened in some cases but if you look at the delay in the first lockdown, the ignoring of Sage (Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies) advice to have a short lockdown in September, to lock down in December, and the advice on schools, [the science] has been largely ignored.
"One overriding feeling I get is they just don't like giving people bad news until it comes to this crisis point."
His comments came as MPs returned from their Christmas recess early yesterday and voted retrospectively to approve the legislation needed for the third lockdown for England that had begun just after midnight.
The decision to instigate another lockdown was announced by Prime Minister Boris Johnson on Monday night amid an alarming rise in cases, fuelled in part by the emergence of a new variant of the virus that is up to 70 per cent more transmissible.
It has led to corresponding increases in hospitalisations and fatalities, with the Government yesterday confirming a further 1,041 people in the UK had died within 28 days of testing positive for Covid-19 - the highest daily reported total since April 21.
Dr Griffin said: "A lockdown is not a strategy. That's the major thing that people get a bit confused about - and rightly. It's an emergency measure.
"It's to do with starving that virus of the opportunity to jump from one person to the other. The virus has to have a host. The whole purpose is to jump from one person to the other, replicating itself and then carrying on.
"What a lockdown is for is regaining control of an epidemic when you have a lost control. What matters is what you do with the time you buy from the lockdown. You need to put the measures in place to ensure that you don't need another one."
He said the idea that scientists were pro or anti lockdown measures was "ridiculous", adding that everyone recognises the socio-economic damage is "dreadful" but it may still be necessary to bring an epidemic under control.
The need for a third national lockdown demonstrates, he said, that the right steps have not been taken at other times.
"We allowed mixing, we allowed people to go back into shops, we encouraged people to eat out in restaurants, we didn't test people going in and out of the country," Dr Griffin said. "They've basically done a halfway house and tried to get away with it.
"We seem to have been trapped in this denial over what's necessary to get this sorted out. You can't go in the halfway house about this. It's how we ended up where we are now."
He said this latest lockdown must be accompanied by an effective strategy and clear communication about any necessary measures when it ends.
"They think people won't comply with it," he said. "My view is people will go with measures if they understand why and it's going to have an end point when they can go about their lives.
"The onus is on them to get their messaging right and get it right first time. You can understand people being upset - my wife is shielding again - but the fact is this virus isn't about what individuals do. It's about what individuals do that affects other people.
"A face mask prevents you spreading it, you're actually looking after others. It's altruistic."
Dr Griffin said the Government cannot just rely on vaccination alone because although it should reduce hospitalisations and fatalities among those who get a jab, it is not yet known whether the vaccines prevent transmission to others.
He added: "People need to understand that after the lockdown, we're still going to need to go very, very, very slowly because that tail end, if it's still there, is going to come back and bite you."
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