National lockdown might not be enough to stop COVID, leading scientist warns

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Connor Parker
·4 min read
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A nurse works on a patient in the ICU (Intensive Care Unit) in St George's Hospital in Tooting, south-west London, where the number of intensive care beds for the critically sick has had to be increased from 60 to 120, the vast majority of which are for coronavirus patients.
The NHS has seen more than 10,000 new coronavirus in-patients since Christmas Day. (PA)

The new variant of COVID-19 may mean the latest lockdown will fail to get the R below one in England, a leading scientist has warned.

England joined the rest of the UK in lockdown on Tuesday when the government put the nation under stay at home orders and closed schools across the country.

Cases in the UK spiked significantly in December and have continued to grow since the start of the new year with 52,618 new cases confirmed on Thursday.

Watch: Simon Stevens: Claims hospitals are not under pressure from Covid-19 are 'an insult'

The rise in infections is partly due to the new variant of COVID-19 which originated in Kent.

Scientists have warned the new variant is even more infectious than the original strain of coronavirus and risks becoming the dominant version of the virus in the UK.

The Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (SAGE) has warned the new variant could increase R by between 0.4 and 0.7.

Read more: This is going to be the last lockdown, Matt Hancock says

The current estimate for R in England is between 1.1 and 1.4.

Thursday was the second deadliest day in the pandemic so far, with 1,162 new deaths reported, beaten only by the 1,224 recorded on April 21.

The R number is an estimate of many people will a person who has COVID-19 will infect, an R above one means the pandemic is growing.

Christina Pagel, Director of the Clinical Operational Research Unit at University College London, predicted on Twitter the new variant will mean lockdown may not bring R below one in England.

She pointed out during the spring lockdown, the R in England fell to between 0.6 and 0.7.

Pagel said because the new strain can increase R by as much as 0.7 then even the stricter March lockdown would struggle to bring the R down below one.

Although the new lockdown measures are tight in England they still say people who cannot work from home should go to work, with many sectors like construction able to continue.

More children are also going to school compared to the last lockdown as well as the definition of key worker has been broadened.

Pagel said: “For many, lockdown is mandatory isolation anyway, but for those working outside the home, less has changed.

“For the 10m+ essential workers, contact tracing and isolation remains important. Many are low income and in overcrowded housing. Their kids are in school. Lack of ability to isolate - financial *and* practical - *and* greater exposure to covid means transmission will continue.”

She said the government needed to ensure workplaces were as safe as possible, ensure people isolating got their full wage and control the borders to ensure more new strains don’t enter the UK.

Pagel estimated the current measures will only at best bring R to around 1 which would mean the NHS would “not be able to cope with such high sustained burden on its health system and many thousands more will lose their lives.”

She said the next few weeks will be “very very tough.”

The UK is already suffering a high amount of hospital admissions.

NHS Chief Executive Sir Simon Stevens said at a Downing Street press conference on NHS had seen more than 10,000 new coronavirus in-patients since Christmas Day and warned the numbers were “accelerating very very rapidly.”

He said the new patients were enough to fill 20 hospitals and the NHS now had 50% more coronavirus patients than during the previous peak in April.

Watch: What you can and can't do during England's third national lockdown