Covid transmission rates ‘incredibly high’ and must fall before lockdown lifted, government adviser warns

'If transmission was at this level and we were not in lockdown, we’d be going into lockdown,' Sir Jeremy Farrar says

Ashley Cowburn
Political Correspondent
Thursday 11 February 2021 13:03
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‘Incredibly high’ Covid rates must fall before lockdown lifted, government adviser warns

Coronavirus transmission rates are still “incredibly high” and must fall significantly before lockdown restrictions are lifted, a government scientific adviser has warned.

The director of the Wellcome Trust, Sir Jeremy Farrar, suggested that cases must be brought down to the “single thousands” and urged against setting arbitrary dates for easing measures.

“We’ve got to learn the lessons of history,” he stressed. “2020 — we will remember it. We remember the lockdowns, we remember frankly easing too quickly and going back into lockdowns again in the future.”

However, Downing Street later refused to commit to a case rate below 10,000 being the trigger for the easing of lockdown restrictions.

Boris Johnson's official spokesman said only that the prime minister would "look at all the data in the round" when drawing up the roadmap for recovery which he has promised to unveil in the week of 22 February.

Sir Jeremy, a member of the government’s Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage) said: “We should aim that this is the last lockdown at this level in the UK. But that can only be true if transmission is very, very much lower than it is today. 

“It’s still incredibly high in the UK, if transmission was at this level and we were not in lockdown, we’d be going into lockdown. There are 750,000 people today in the UK infected.”

While he said Britain deserves “great credit” for the rollout of vaccines — some 13 million people have received a first jab — he warned on BBC Radio 4's Today programme: “Transmission is incredibly high still and we’ve got to get it lower. 

“We’ve got to get in my view into the single thousands before we can possibly think about lifting the restrictions.”

Pressed on Sir Jeremy’s comments, Matt Hancock outlined there were still over 10,000 new positive cases of the virus each day and pressure on the health service was still significant with 26,000 people in hospitals with Covid.

The health secretary said because the number is gradually coming down “there’s a good news sense the pressure is lessening and it is, but it’s still very significant”.

After a series of announcements from government ministers strengthening quarantine measures, Sir Jeremy added that border controls can only work if transmission “is very low, if they are very comprehensive and you’re willing to put them in place for a very long time”

“They buy you time, but they don’t reduce transmission when your transmission is already very high.”

As Mr Johnson prepares to set out the government’s “roadmap” for easing restrictions in just under a fortnight, he went on: “Ministers have been really clear on this in February 2021. It’s not sensible to set a date by which you are going to lift restrictions.

“Those restrictions can be lifted, and they will be lifted but only when the data allows that to be true. Setting a date now arbitrarily for some date in March or April frankly doesn’t make any sense because, I appreciate businesses have to plan, but the data has to drive us and I’m afraid in 2020 we lifted restrictions too quickly.”

Sir Jeremy said that new variants emerging across the world must be “taken incredibly seriously”, adding: "These are a warning that viruses will evolve, they will change, and if we allow transmission to keep going as high as it is at the moment in the UK and around the world then more of these new variants will occur and the risk is yes, the evade and escape the treatments of the vaccines that we have available today.

"But that’s not inevitable. If we drive down transmission in this country, if we vaccinate as many people as we possibly can and critically around the world then we will reduce the number of viruses circulating the world and the number of variants can trouble us in the future will be much less."

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