Over 60s might be asked to shield amid rising coronavirus cases, says UEA expert

Professor Paul Hunter, from the University of East Anglia. Picture: UEA

Professor Paul Hunter, from the University of East Anglia. Picture: UEA - Credit: UEA

People aged 60 and above may have to make judgements on whether to shield to reduce their chances of being infected with coronavirus, a Norwich expert in infectious diseases has suggested.

Amid a rise in cases, the government is set to ban gatherings of people in groups of six or more from Monday as it tries to keep the virus in check.

Professor Paul Hunter, from the University of East Anglia’s Norwich Medical School, said he was not convinced that would have the desired effect - and alternatives may have to be considered.

Prof Hunter said: “The problem is that we are running out of options. We were always expecting cases to rise as we moved towards Christmas and they will probably peak in December and January.

“But we thought we’d be able to manage that through test, track and trace, so we could squash specific outbreaks without having to go to wider interventions.

“In the past week, though, we’ve found that the ‘world-beating’ system cannot cope with what is happening now, so how on earth is it going to manage in a couple of month’s time?”

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Prof Hunter said there was “no doubt” the infection was being spread by younger people, but stressed they should not be demonised for it, given so many work in industries such as bars and cafes.

He said: “The options are really running out. I don’t think we could go back to the situation we had when lockdown first came in. I don’t think anyone thinks that is acceptable - we cannot afford our children to miss more of their education.

I think that option was lost when the Dominic Cummings issue came up. If that had not happened, then I think we would be having this conversation in another few weeks, rather than now, as we’d have been in a better position. “But we had that case, along with a couple of others, and people lost faith in what the government was telling them to do.”

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Prof Hunter said tightening restrictions was sensible, but added: “I am not entirely convinced it will achieve what they hope, but it is clearly worth doing. So the other option is shielding.

“The World Health Organisation talks about over 60s being most at risk and I think shielding of that group will end up being recommended.”

But Prof Hunter said it might come down to the judgement of individuals and suggested an app could be devised which indicates how high risk individuals are - so they can make their choice.

He said: “That would enable people to come up with a measure of their own risk and they could then decide whether they should be shielding.

“For instance, in my case, I want to see my grandchildren grow up, be company for my wife and I have factors which make me higher risk, so I would want to shield.”

Prof Hunter said evidence was that second infections were not as severe as first time around. He said: “So, for over 60s, maybe the recommendation is to shield unless you have already had it, in which case you might be able to go a little bit further forward.”

Prof Hunter said modelling had shown cases would peak in December and January, but would then come down in April next year, whether or not a vaccine is available by that point.

MORE: Coronavirus restrictions: What are the new rules on social gatherings?

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