Boris Johnson must ensure “Plan B” restrictions can be “rapidly” deployed if needed, scientists advising the coronavirus response have urged, as data showed infections rising across England.
The Prime Minister was resisting implementing the back-up plans to deal with the pandemic this winter as experts on the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage) gave a cautiously optimistic forecast.
They said in minutes of a meeting published on Friday that a further huge spike in infections as seen in January was “increasingly unlikely”, as experts predicted a series of broader, flatter peaks as the virus continues to spread.
However, in its meeting dated October 14, Sage warned that measures from the Government’s Plan B would have greatest effect if brought in in unison and earlier on rather than later.
Scientists are in favour of a relatively light-touch approach, implemented earlier to make a difference, with Sage saying: “In the event of increasing case rates, earlier intervention would reduce the need for more stringent, disruptive, and longer-lasting measures.”
Mr Johnson said his winter plan had “always predicted that cases would rise around about now” and that the “high levels of infections” are not outside the anticipated parameters.
Speaking to reporters during a visit to a vaccine centre in west London, the Prime Minister urged the public to get their booster jabs as he called for uptake to be “ramped up even further”.
But in a move which could reflect the pressures expected to hit the NHS this winter, the health service announced that Dr Emily Lawson would be returning to lead the Covid vaccination programme.
Dr Lawson led the successful first rollout and was then seconded to head up No 10’s Delivery Unit, which is tasked with ensuring the Government delivers on its priorities.
NHS chief executive Amanda Pritchard said: “It’s great news that Emily has agreed to return to lead the NHS Covid-19 vaccination programme as our response to the pandemic enters another crucial phase.
“Vaccines are a key line of defence against Covid and Emily’s wealth of experience, skill and her knowledge of the programme will be a huge asset as we prepare for winter.”
Sage said the “reintroduction of working-from-home guidance is likely to have the greatest individual impact on transmission out of the proposed measures” in Plan B, which also includes the mandatory use of face masks.
The group also advised that “policy work on the potential reintroduction of measures should be undertaken now so that it can be ready for rapid deployment”.
Their advice emerged as data from the Office for National Statistics (ONS) showed about one in 55 people in private households in England had Covid-19 in the week to October 16, up from one in 60 the previous week.
In Wales, infection levels were unchanged, but have dropped in Scotland and Northern Ireland.
Separate figures showed a further 180 people in the UK had died within 28 days of testing positive for Covid-19, bringing the official UK total to 139,326.
In a review of all the evidence, the Scientific Pandemic Influenza Group on Modelling, Operational sub-group (Spi-M-O) told Sage this month: “It will take both a rapid increase in transmission rates and repeated waning of protection from vaccination to lead to hospital admission levels in the order of magnitude of those seen in January 2021.
“Unless both these eventualities occur, or a new variant of concern emerges, it is highly unlikely that such levels of hospital admissions will be reached in the coming autumn and winter.”
Spi-M-O said that if protection from vaccination does not wane much further than already seen then “hospital admission rates are unlikely to get significantly higher than those currently seen”.
Spi-M-O also said it was “possible” that “action beyond Plan B may be required to control growth”, adding that “Sage have been asked to consider the potential effect of returning to the steps outlined in February 2021’s road map”.
One paper from Imperial College London, presented to Sage, warned that a pessimistic scenario could see almost 10,000 deaths over the winter, while any delay in the Covid-19 booster programme could result in “a much larger epidemic”.
Modellers said in a pessimistic assumption “we project a substantial wave of total infections, hospitalisations and deaths, totalling 9,900 deaths by March 13 2022”.
But under the “most optimistic scenario”, it said current levels of protection in the population combined with the boosters should keep the spread of the virus “at levels similar to or lower than currently observed”.
In its advice to ministers, Sage said there was uncertainty in all the modelling and warned that the threat of variants has not yet gone away.
Earlier, Professor Anthony Harnden, deputy chairman of the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation (JCVI), said they would look at cutting the timeframe between second doses and boosters from six months to five, after Mr Johnson expressed interest in having a review.
There has been huge criticism of the booster vaccine rollout, with some patients and charities saying people have found it impossible to book a jab.
Prof Harnden said six months had been shown to be the “sweet spot” for having a booster, adding the main issues in the programme were accessibility to the vaccine and persuading people to have one.
However his committee colleague Professor Jeremy Brown said he would not back any changes.
He told Channel 4 News: “At the moment there are different vaccination programmes going on. There’s the booster programme, there’s the third dose in those that are immunosuppressed, and there’s the vaccination programme in children.
“So there are sort of competing vaccination programmes occurring simultaneously, which makes things more complicated for the delivery people.”
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