Leaders need to be “flexible enough to pivot” back to coronavirus restrictions, America’s chief medical adviser has warned.
Dr Anthony Fauci, who advises US president Joe Biden, told the BBC’s Sunday Morning programme “we need to be prepared for the possibility” of “a more rigid type of restrictions” should another potentially harmful new variant emerge.
His warning comes as COVID cases, driven by the Omicron subvariant, once again surge around the world.
In England, the latest ONS infection survey - considered the gold standard in assessing the prevalence of COVID in the community - has estimated one in 16 people have the virus.
Meanwhile, there has been a sharp uptick in UK hospital admissions in March, though the number - 2,227 - admitted on Monday is still half the admissions - 4,580 - at the peak of the second wave of the pandemic in January last year.
And Dr Fauci added the surge "doesn’t appear to be associated with any increase in severity in the form of increased hospitalisations" in the context of eased restrictions.
Boris Johnson dropped all of England's COVID restrictions last month, with the Westminster government now using a “living with COVID” approach. More than 600,000 people will be invited for a booster jab next week.
But Dr Fauci, asked about the possible necessity of future restrictions, warned “we should be prepared”.
“I don’t want to use the word ‘lockdown’ as that has a charged element to it, but I believe that we must keep our eye on the pattern of what we’re seeing with infections right now.
“We need to be prepared for the possibility that we would have another variant that would come along and then things change.
“And if we do get a variance that does give us an uptick in cases and hospitalisation, we should be prepared and flexible enough to pivot towards going back - at least temporarily - to a more rigid type of restrictions, such as requiring masks indoors.”
On what next winter will look like, Dr Fauci added: “I think it’s really unpredictable. This virus has fooled us so often. We really don’t know and I think anyone who says they’re going to predict with any certainty what’s going to happen in the winter I think, is a bit of a stretch.”
Meanwhile, reflecting on COVID restrictions, UK education secretary Nadhim Zahawi has admitted the "mistake" of school closures between March and May 2020 and January and March last year.
Zahawi pledged this would “never again” happen following the disruption caused for millions of pupils.