Coronavirus: UK faces ‘cascade’ of new infections without urgent action, government scientific adviser says

‘We know these are very vulnerable pockets, it’s not just in the younger people, it’s starting to appear in even more vulnerable and inevitably it’s going to be followed by hospitalisations and deaths’

Ashley Cowburn
Political Correspondent
Sunday 13 September 2020 18:00
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Coronavirus: UK faces ‘cascade’ of new infections without urgent action, government scientific adviser says

Britain faces a “cascade” of new cases of coronavirus infections unless it acts rapidly to prevent transmissions growing out of control, according to a scientist advising the government.

Peter Openshaw, a professor of experimental medicine at Imperial College London and member of the government’s New and Emerging Respiratory Virus Threats Advisory Group, said even a delay of a few days could be potentially “dangerous”.

His alarming remarks came as concerns over an increase of Covid-19 transmissions in care homes were detailed by the Department of Health and Social Care in an official report on Friday – prompting an alert being sent to care providers.

According to The Sunday Times, a letter was distributed to care bosses to “take the necessary action to prevent and limit outbreaks”, pointing out that in the last three days there had been an increase in notifications of cases in residence, but predominantly among staff.

“We know these are very vulnerable pockets, it’s not just in the younger people, it’s starting to appear in even more vulnerable and inevitably it’s going to be followed by hospitalisations and deaths,” the professor said.

“We need to act quickly. This isn’t a game, we shouldn’t be out trying to party as hard as we can in the run-up to Monday’s lockdown, we should all be really thinking about what we can do now to slow down the spread.”

According to the latest government figures, more than 3,000 Covid-19 cases were recorded overall in the UK on Saturday for a second day in a row – the first time since mid-May that recorded cases have been above that level on consecutive days.

Asked how alarming the current situation is, he told Sky News’s Sophy Ridge on Sunday: “I think it’s so important that the detection systems that have been set up in the UK have picked up this signal that we are seeing a really sharp rise in cases.

“Everyone is agreement that we really need to act very quickly now in order to prevent this from growing exponentially. We must act fast because it is so much harder to get this sort of thing under control if you delay even a few days. This is potentially going to be quite dangerous now at this particular moment.”

Pressed on whether he agreed with fellow government scientific adviser Sir Mark Walport that the UK was losing control of the virus, he replied: “Yes, I think that is right. It is like water seeping through a dam. It starts as a trickle but if you don’t do something about, it can turn into a real cascade.”

On the new “rule of six” being introduced on Monday – banning social gatherings both indoors and outdoors to just six people – he said the new restrictions were “somewhat irrational” but that its simplicity was an asset.

“It is really difficult to get the rules sensible and straight and easy to understand and I can quite see why the government wants to bring in something which is very simple and straightforward.

“The rule of six is based on some statistical modelling so it’s not just arbitrary, they haven’t picked the number out of thin air, but it does seem somewhat irrational in some of the detail and I can appreciate that but I’m afraid it is going to cause pain and suffering for us to all go back to some degree of lockdown, but if we don’t do this now we are going to be right back in hard lockdown in short order.

However, he expressed optimism on the possibility of a coronavirus vaccine producing positive results before Christmas.

He said: “With all the vaccine trials now coming through which are scheduled to deliver a result within the next few months, I do feel that on the basis of what we know about the immune system that it’s likely that these immune responses that are being induced by these vaccines may be protective for at least a few months, possibly even years, we just don’t know yet, it’s early days.

“I do think that we will probably have a positive results of at least one of these vaccine trials, probably more than that, by Christmas and that means that with rapid scaling up we might have vaccination programmes that can roll out to some parts of the world in the next nine months.”

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