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Chief scientist backs Boris’s lockdown lifting plan in stages

The Government’s chief scientific adviser has backed lifting the lockdown in stages, as new documents predict tens of thousands more deaths if restrictions ease too quickly.

Sir Patrick Vallance told a media briefing the UK could see a big “resurgence” in cases as he praised moves to allow several weeks between each lockdown stage to assess the impact.

“The sooner you open up everything, the higher the risk of a bigger resurgence,” he said. “The slower you do it, the better.

“And importantly, if you want to understand what you’re doing because we don’t know for sure what the effects of the different measures are, do steps with enough time between them that you can measure data.

“And that means probably allowing something like four or five weeks between each step – four weeks to be able to measure the effects of the step you’ve just taken, and then a week for people to actually get ready in terms of what needs to happen.”

It comes as documents published by the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage) show how modelling predicts a big rise in cases and deaths if restrictions lift too quickly, even with the continued success of the vaccine programme.

Summarising what the papers show, Sir Patrick said: “Vaccines are predicted – as you’d expect and hope – to make a big difference.

“But even with high vaccine levels, and indeed quite high vaccine coverage, it’s important to remember that a large number of people in the population remain unprotected.”

Professor Dame Angela McLean, chief scientific adviser for the Ministry of Defence, added: “If you unlock more slowly, the peak that you get is less high. And I think all of us feel that would be a good thing.

“It’s common sense why that happens, there remain people who have either been not vaccinated, or even though these vaccines are absolutely fantastic, they are not perfect – so there are people who have been vaccinated who nevertheless are not protected from very severe disease.

“So if were to let a big epidemic happen among younger people, then some of those vulnerable older people, or people who are vulnerable for another reason, will get infected and will become very ill.”

In a Scientific Pandemic Influenza Group on Modelling (SPI-M) document dated February 17, modelling by the University of Warwick and Imperial College London is set out.

It says that even under the most optimistic set of assumptions, at least a further 30,000 Covid-19 deaths could occur.

Under some of the models, such as with a rapid relaxation of rules, further death figures would reach well over 100,000.

It continues: “There is the potential for a resurgence to result in a very large number of infections (third wave) if restrictions are lifted early or rapidly which would lead to large numbers of hospitalisations and deaths unless vaccine coverage is very high.

“If all restrictions were to be lifted by the start of May (over a period of around two months, starting in March), hospital occupancy would be highly likely to reach levels higher than at the peak in January 2021, even under optimistic assumptions around vaccine rollout.”

The document says keeping some baseline measures once restrictions are lifted “is almost certain to save many lives” and could include voluntary mask-wearing, avoiding crowds and an effective test and trace system.

The paper says the impact on infections, hospital admissions and deaths is smaller if measures are released when infection levels are lower and if changes are made gradually.

“Relaxing measures later therefore has two benefits; it allows prevalence to be brought down further, and also allows more people to be vaccinated before R (reproduction number) increases.

“The combined effect of these means a significantly smaller resurgence.”

SPI-M says its “consensus view remains that the opening of primary and secondary schools is likely to increase effective R by a factor of 1.1 to 1.5 (10% to 50%)”.

This is partly because opening schools affects the activities and behaviours of parents and other adults as well as children, it said.

The document suggests scientists are at odds with the Government on the timing of schools going back, with all set to be reopening on March 8.

SPI-M says: “A phased reopening would allow the effects to be assessed which would be particularly valuable if schools were one of the first things to reopen, as there will be more uncertainties in the early stages of releasing measures (e.g. around the impact of vaccines).”

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