Covid: Ministers have ‘lost the message’, advisers and scientists warn

Experts believe that messaging around basic measures such as mask-wearing has slipped

Samuel Lovett
Science Correspondent
,Anna Isaac
Wednesday 24 November 2021 07:53
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Northern Ireland tells people to work from home amid rising Covid cases

Ministers in England have “lost the message” over Covid-19, scientific advisers and leading experts have warned – on the same day that the devolved nations strengthened their own strategies against the virus.

While Northern Ireland reinforced its working-from-home guidance and the Scottish government admitted that the country was in a “precarious” position, scientists in England warned that Downing Street needed to take Covid “more seriously” as the country heads into winter.

Experts believe that messaging has slipped around basic measures such as mask-wearing and avoiding crowded, unventilated spaces – policies that are being actively pushed by England’s closest neighbours.

One member of the government’s Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage) said that this advice needed to “be continually reinforced by the people in power”.

Kamlesh Khunti, a professor of primary care diabetes and vascular medicine, added: “We’ve lost the message; we don’t hear it as much now.”

Another member of Sage, who asked to remain anonymous, said the government ought to be encouraging people to work from home where possible – despite the prime minister’s insistence this week that workers should return to the office, in part because there are evolutionary reasons “why Mother Nature does not like working from home”.

However, the Sage source warned that the measure – a key component of plan B – was no “magic bullet”, with homeworking rates still relatively high compared to before the pandemic. Data shows that roughly one in three people are continuing to work from home.

Robin Shattock, an immunologist at Imperial College London who was commissioned by the government to develop a Covid vaccine, said ministers needed to “take a lead in indicating that masks should not be optional if people want to save Christmas”.

Cases in the UK are not currently surging – unlike on the continent – though more than 1,000 weekly deaths were recorded on Tuesday for the first time in eight months.

A total of 1,020 coronavirus deaths were registered in the week ending 12 November, the Office for National Statistics said.

Scientists believe that the UK is unlikely to follow the rest of Europe in experiencing a sharp rise in cases, having already gone through a surge of infections in summer after lifting all restrictions, but many have warned that more needs to be done to keep the country safe this winter.

“There’s no room for complacency. Although we’re doing well at the moment, we’re not out of the woods yet,” said Professor Lawrence Young, a virologist at the University of Warwick. “The government needs to keep urging people to get vaccinated and boosted, if eligible, but also to behave cautiously.”

Prof Khunti said ministers should recommend that people work from home where possible. He also raised a concern that members of the public were “no longer doing the simple things”, pointing to the example of mask-wearing. “If you go on the tube, the majority of people aren’t doing this.”

Similarly, a new poll from YouGov has found that 72 per cent of adults in the UK are not regularly taking Covid-19 lateral flow tests, as the government changed its advice to recommend that people take such tests before visiting crowded indoor spaces.

In light of developments in both Europe and the UK, it is “vitally important that everyone plays their part in acting responsibly to reduce viral transmission and to avoid the possibility of further restrictive measures”, said Dr Maggie Wearmouth, a GP and member of the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation.

“Wearing masks and practising social distancing is effective, and respectful to others in the community.”

A new poll has found that 72 per cent of UK adults are not regularly taking a Covid test

The World Health Organisation said on Tuesday that the European region remained “in the firm grip” of the pandemic, with reported daily deaths rising to almost 4,200 a day – double the 2,100 deaths a day recorded at the end of September.

Although Downing Street remains confident that the UK won’t need to adopt the sort of measures now being implemented across the continent, the devolved administrations have taken a far more proactive stance.

Fresh work-from-home guidance has been issued in Northern Ireland, and ministers urged people to limit their social contacts and wear face-coverings in crowded or indoor settings. Deputy first minister Michelle O’Neill said that the measures were the best chance of avoiding further restrictions in the weeks ahead.

In Scotland, Nicola Sturgeon warned that the country was in a “precarious” position, but stopped short of extending the vaccine passport scheme to more venues. However, she urged the Scottish public to take a Covid test before socialising and shopping in crowded places in order to avoid “inadvertently passing the virus on”.

The first minister also urged people to continue with basic hygiene measures, such as wearing a face-covering, working from home where possible, and getting vaccinated.

Dr Peter English, a former chair of the British Medical Association’s Public Health Medicine Committee, said that the “emphasis in England seems to be entirely on using vaccination and natural immunity to control Covid-19”.

He added that it was “a shame” that Downing Street wasn’t following the Northern Ireland and Scottish governments in openly implementing or advocating baseline measures, such as mask-wearing or working from home.

NHS Providers, meanwhile, said that the government needed to keep “a close eye” on the UK’s Covid-19 data and take the “necessary steps if appropriate to prevent the NHS from being overwhelmed”.

Some 42,484 new infections were reported across Britain on Tuesday, along with 165 further deaths. As of Monday, 8,088 people were in hospital with Covid-19, according to government data.

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