Downing Street has drawn up contingency plans for shorter, “firebreak” lockdowns in the future, should rising Covid-19 case numbers threaten to overwhelm the NHS over the winter months.
As reported by i, though the Government is confident the UK’s ongoing vaccination programme will keep infection levels below those that necessitated previous lockdowns, there is still a worry that predictions could be off, and that less favourable weather conditions could lead to another worrying rise.
This, coupled with an expected rise in the number of patients experiencing serious flu symptoms as restrictions are eased, could lead to pressure being put on the health service.
A “senior government source” has told the newspaper that the Prime Minister has authorised planning for “firebreak” lockdowns to combat such a scenario.
“The Government believes it has got to grips with the pandemic following the vaccine rollout,” the Government adviser reportedly said.
They said that “fears over a rise in infections similar to that seen last autumn are actually outweighed by other issues like an NHS staffing crisis and the likely resurgence in flu infections,” but that those factors “could tip the NHS back to the brink and force more lockdowns.”
The coronavirus reproduction number, or R value, in England has fallen and is between 0.8 and 1.1, according to the latest Government figures.
Last week, it was between 1.1 and 1.4. R represents the average number of people each Covid-19 positive person goes on to infect.
But the number of Covid infections is expected to rise again in September, when school and university terms begin and more workers are expected to return to the office.
What would a ‘firebreak’ lockdown look like?
The source told i that the Government is keen to avoid the long lockdowns the UK has experienced on multiple occasions over the past 18 months.
It is hoped any tougher measures required in the future would be implemented during the school holidays for weeks, rather than months, at a time.
They said: “As a responsible Government, we have to be prepared to respond to unexpected events as the country learns to live with Covid-19.
“As part of our strategy to manage the virus, it is both right and sensible that we maintain contingency plans for reimposing restrictions at a local, regional or national level if evidence suggests they are necessary.
“As set out in guidance, we will continue to monitor the data on a regular basis to ensure there is no danger of the NHS facing unsustainable pressure.”
Lockdowns ‘unlikely’ to be needed
The news comes as prominent Government scientific adviser Professor Neil Ferguson said lockdowns are “unlikely” to be needed to control the pandemic in the UK in future, even though Covid case numbers could rise again.
In a wide-ranging interview with The Times, Prof Ferguson said there would still likely be higher numbers of deaths each year than before as the world learns to live with the new disease, much like deaths are caused by the flu each winter.
Prof Ferguson said it was “unlikely we will need a new lockdown or even social distancing measures of the type we’ve had so far”, though that could change if the virus “changes substantially”.
He said as social contacts increased, Britain could “reach another point where we start seeing increasing case numbers again”, though at least vaccines had “changed the relationship between cases and hospitalisation”.
Overall, he said the UK, like elsewhere, would likely have to accept the continuing presence of Covid-19 as a potentially lethal threat, saying: “I suspect for several years, we will see additional mortality. There’s a risk in the winter coming of thousands to tens of thousands more deaths.”
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