'We're back in the eye of the storm,' says NHS chief Sir Simon Stevens

Covid: Urgent national action needed to prevent ‘catastrophe’ in January, warns government adviser

‘We’re entering a new dangerous phase of the pandemic,’ says professor Andrew Hayward

Ashley Cowburn
Political Correspondent
Tuesday 29 December 2020 09:42

National coronavirus restrictions are now needed to prevent a “catastrophe” in January and February as the coronavirus pandemic enters a “new dangerous phase”, a government scientific adviser has warned.

Andrew Hayward, who sits on the government’s New and Emerging Respiratory Virus Threats Advisory Group (Nervtag), also suggested it “makes a lot of sense” to keep schools closed for a while longer as cases of the virus continue to climb.

His remarks came as Boris Johnson prepares to review the tiered measures for England, with millions more reportedly set to be plunged into the highest Tier 4 level of restrictions, which just over 40 per cent of the population are already subject too.

The prime minister has not ruled out the prospect of a third national lockdown – a course of action he has previously referred to as the “nuclear” option – but on Monday over 40,000 new infections were recorded in the UK for the first time.

Speaking to BBC Radio 4’s Today programme, professor Hayward said: “We’re entering a new dangerous phase of the pandemic and we’re going to need decisive, early, national action to prevent a catastrophe in January and February.

“A 50 per cent increase in transmissibility means that the previous levels of restrictions that worked before won’t work now and so Tier 4 restrictions are likely to necessary or even higher than that.”

He added: “I think we’re really looking at a situation where we’re moving into near lockdown. But we’ve got to learn the lessons from the first lockdown.”

“If we want to control the new variant we’re going to need much tighter restrictions. But I think what we need to remember is that whilst lockdowns work they only really work if you can afford to lockdown. 

"We need to be able to make people who can’t afford to protect themselves and contribute to control to be able to do that. We need to incentivise isolation, we need to think about the social aspects of this disease and how it’s dividing our society.”

As the prime minister faces intensifying pressure to delay the reopening of schools next week after the Christmas break, professor Hayward, who is also the director of UCL’s Institute for Epidemiology, added: “From a purely epidemiological point of view, then it makes a lot of sense to keep schools closed for longer and introduce more stringent testing in them.”

“Unfortunately, I think what we’ve failed to do is address the digital divide among school children such that the opportunity to the provide high quality online education for the poorest parts of the community has been lost.

“I think we’re going to have to get to schools back, maybe a little bit later, but we’re going to have to have increased restrictions in other areas of society to pay for that.”

Dr Zubaida Haque, a member of the Independent Sage group and leading social scientist, also told ITV’s Good Morning Britain the government had failed to make schools safe despite the worsening Covid-19 situation.

"The key question is are schools safe enough right now? Has the government made schools safer and, in making it safer, can we then keep schools open?,” she said.

She added: “Right now we have a critical situation - yesterday we had the highest number of daily Covid cases, over 41,000 cases of coronavirus in this country. By Christmas Day we had more people in hospitals than at the peak in April this year, so we are in a crisis situation now.

"The government has delayed opening parliament because we are in a crisis situation but yesterday we had Michael Gove saying 'No, it's fine, we're going to have schools open next week and we'll have a staggered return' and, frankly, that's not acceptable, and that's not safe."

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