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Lockdowns unlikely to be needed again, scientist behind first lockdown says

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Further lockdowns are “unlikely” to be required to control the coronavirus pandemic in the UK, one of the government’s top scientific advisers has said.

It comes as the number of people in hospital with COVID-19 has fallen, and the average rate of infection has decreased.

COVID infections are widely expected to rise again in September, when school and university terms begin and more workers return to the office, but scientists are optimistic that this can be managed without some of the tough restrictions seen since the start of the pandemic.

Scientist advises UK gov't on coronavirus steps down after lockdown breach
Epidemiologist Neil Ferguson speaks at a news conference in London, Britain January 22, 2020, in this still image taken from video. REUTERS TV via REUTERS
Image: Neil Ferguson says extreme measures aren’t likely to be needed again

In an interview with The Times, immunologist Professor Neil Ferguson, who was behind the first lockdown last year, predicted lockdowns probably won’t be needed again to control the virus.

“I think it is unlikely we will need a new lockdown or even social distancing measures of the type we’ve had so far.”

However, the Imperial College professor did say they could not be ruled out if new variants throw the progress off course.

The “caveat” which might change the situation is if the “virus changes substantially”, he said.

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But Prof Ferguson added COVID was “going to transition quite quickly in a few months to be more something we live with and manage through vaccination rather than crisis measures”.

He said the vaccine had “dramatically changed the relationship between cases and hospitalisation”.

Euro 2020 created an “artificially inflated level of contact”, he said, leading to his predictions in July that the UK would hit 100,000 cases a day following phase four of unlocking.

But after the tournament ended, cases suddenly decreased, and Prof Ferguson said the “pingdemic” also had a “reasonable effect” on making it harder for the virus to spread.

It was as if Boris Johnson, instead of announcing freedom day, had “announced a lockdown in terms of how quickly across every local authority case numbers went down,” Prof Ferguson said.

England team huddle during extra-time
Image: Euro 2020 saw thousands of people gather in stadiums, as well as in pubs and bars

The number of COVID patients in hospital in England has dropped, with the latest figures from NHS England showing there were 4,879 patients in hospital at 8am on Friday 6 August, down 4.5% week-on-week from the 5,111 reported on Friday 30 July.

But we are not out of the woods yet, the scientist warned, saying we still may reach a point where case numbers increase again.

“We’re at a stage where we’ve got a huge amount of immunity in the population, but the virus is more transmissible than it’s ever been so we have this complicated trade-off,” he said.

He suspects additional deaths will continue for several years, warning “thousands to tens of thousands” more people could die in the coming winter.

Prof Ferguson said if Prime Minister Boris Johnson had locked down a week earlier in March 2020, “that first wave would have been very substantially reduced – halved in size at least, maybe even reduced by three quarters”.

Yet he acknowledges the “wonderful thing” of hindsight and understands why civil servants and other scientists “were hesitant about using quite uncertain modelling to make such a cataclysmic decision” as locking down.

He also revealed he had received hate messages from anti-lockdown campaigners, receiving hundreds of abusive emails, “mostly from people on the conspiracy theory end of the spectrum”.

The coronavirus reproduction number, or R value, in England has fallen and is between 0.8 and 1.1, according to the latest figures.

Last week, it was between 1.1 and 1.4. R represents the average number of people each infected person goes on to infect.