Coronavirus: Experts suggest lockdown exit plan allowing restrictions to be eased for 60% of population

University of Edinburgh academics say ‘segmenting’ could allow government to lift rules more quickly

Adam Forrest
Tuesday 05 May 2020 13:55 BST
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Nicola Sturgeon says no end to lockdown anytime soon in coronavirus briefing

Easing the coronavirus lockdown in the UK could begin by relaxing restrictions for around 60 per cent of the population while strengthening protection for the most vulnerable people, experts have suggested.

Researchers at the University of Edinburgh believe the twin approach – known as “segmenting and shielding” – could help healthy young adults return to work while still protecting the NHS.

The group of independent academics say lockdown restrictions could gradually be eased for most people over a 12-week period, so as long as some measures were kept in place to keep transmission rates as low as possible.

These would include self-isolation of people with Covid-19, quarantining all affected households, contact tracing and some voluntary social distancing while outside.

The 20 per cent most vulnerable people in the country – the over 70s and those with underlying medical conditions – would need to be shielded from contact with anyone potentially infected with the virus.

Another 20 per cent of the population considered “shielders” – care workers, health professionals and people sharing a house with a vulnerable person – would also still need to follow strict guidelines.

The academics believe the risk of further surges of the virus among the majority of the population can be managed while giving them greater freedoms.

Mark Woolhouse, a professor of infectious disease epidemiology at the University of Edinburgh, said: “Segmentation and shielding recognises that, although social distancing impacts on the whole of society, the public health burden of Covid-19 is concentrated in a subset of vulnerable people.

“By targeting protection to those that need it most, the strategy helps to ensure that the health system is not overwhelmed by severe cases, while giving policy makers greater leeway to partially relax social distancing measures for the majority of the population.”

Professor Woolhouse told reporters it was not “a magic bullet” and said there was no such thing as a “pain-free route out of lockdown”. However, it was another tool the government could use, he claimed.

“The more people are shielded and the better they are shielded the more potential there is for releasing restrictions on the rest of us,” said the epidemiologist.

Professor Woolhouse accepted that lifting restrictions could send the rate of transmission back up, but said the team’s research modelling suggested there was “wiggle room” for easing rules for the majority of people.

The team have made their findings, which have yet not been peer-reviewed, available to both the UK and Scottish governments.

Dr Bram van Bunnik, a postdoctoral research fellow at the University of Edinburgh’s Usher Institute, added: “Easing the measures taken during the lockdown is important as they currently have a tremendous effect on our society, but this should only be done in a way that is both safe for the people that are most vulnerable as well as for the health and safety of NHS staff.

“Segmentation and shielding is a possible way of achieving this: measures could be eased for a large proportion of the population, however the vulnerable population likely still needs to be protected for a prolonged period.”

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