Another national coronavirus lockdown 'inevitable' warns UEA expert
- Credit: PA
Another national coronavirus lockdown is "inevitable", according to a University of East Anglia expert in infectious diseases.
And Prof Paul Hunter warned the country faces a "really difficult six months" because failures to combat the pandemic contributed to the emergence of the new Covid-19 variant.
With hospitals under increased pressure amid rising coronavirus rates, the government is being urged to impose tougher restrictions - including keeping schools shut.
Health secretary Matt Hancock due to make an announcement in the Commons this afternoon on tier changes.
And Prof Hunter, from the UEA's Medical School, believes another national lockdown - as happened from March and again in November - is likely.
He said: "I think another lockdown is inevitable. My view is that the final decision about lockdowns is not simply a public health decision because, if it was, there is no doubt that is what we should be doing.
"There is the economy, education and children’s wellbeing to think about. Being able to balance those is not in my skillset.
“We are in quite a dire position because of this new variant. The November lockdown was brilliant at reducing Covid across the whole the country with one exception – that being the new variant.
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“I suspect we are heading towards a lockdown. We are not going to get over this anytime soon."
Scientists today called for an “immediate national lockdown” as latest figures show the new Covid variant is “out of control”.
The group called for the government to adopt a five-point strategy including an immediate nationwide lockdown, schools to remain closed throughout January and more effective border controls on international travel.
Sir David King, chair of Independent Sage and former chief scientific adviser to the UK government, said: “The UK is now at the most precarious stage of the pandemic and urgent action is needed."
And Prof Hunter said his initial optimism that the government's tier system, coupled with vaccines, could control the spread had faded.
He said: "A few weeks ago, with the idea of the vaccine being rolled out, I was thinking we would see our local authorities going down the tiers, but now I can’t see anything like that happening before April to May.
"Unless we have a really good effort with immunisation, I think we are in for a really difficult six months ahead.
“The appearance of new variants are random things. This could have happened anywhere, but the fact it happened in England has made it worse for us.
"It happened here probably because we didn’t do enough to get case numbers down earlier in the year.
"This new variant is a direct consequence of us not being effective in trying to combat the pandemic.
"Things like Eat Out to Help Out conspired to raise the number of cases."
And Prof Hunter said the new variant did seem to be spreading in children.
He said: "There is evidence it was spreading predominantly in 10-14 year olds.
"Whether a new lockdown would include schools again is uncertain.
"Two or three weeks ago I would have said we should keep children in schools but, looking at the data, schools do appear to be important in the transmission of Covid.
"The evidence to me is strong that closing schools reduces spread, particularly secondary schools.
"With the ‘old’ variant, closing either hospitality venues or schools would keep it in check.
"With the new variant, it is debatable whether even a national lockdown will be enough.
"The only thing we can do differently compared to the November lockdown is close schools as well. "
And Steve Morphew, leader of the opposition Labour group, said he wanted the government to act now to bring in a new lockdown, including closing schools.
He said: "If we had a time-limited national lockdown, we have the light at the end of the tunnel of the vaccines and the opportunity to take the pressure off the NHS.
"They should launch the lockdown with a massive push to get vaccines to as many people as possible. By reducing the pressure on hospitals it would help that to happen.
"If that involved going back to the sort of lockdown we had in March for a month, then I think people would understand that.
"I personally think they should shut schools to all but children of key workers for at least part of it.
"The most important thing is to move quickly to get this under control."
Professor Neil Ferguson, a member of the government's New and Emerging Respiratory Virus Threats Advisory Group (Nervtag), said schools staying shut may be "required" if it was "the only alternative to having exponentially growing numbers of hospitalisations".
And Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage) members Professor Andrew Hayward and Dr Mike Tildesley have also suggested a possible "slight delay" to having pupils back on site.
Norfolk and Suffolk moved from Tier 2 to Tier 4 on Boxing Day and Mr Hancock is expected to announce more parts of the country will have to adhere to tighter restrictions.