The UK faces another “lockdown Christmas” unless more stringent measures to combat Covid-19 are implemented immediately alongside the vaccine rollout, according to multiple experts.
Peter Openshaw, of the New and Emerging Respiratory Virus Threats Advisory Group (Nervtag), issued the warning after a week of pressure on ministers to activate fully their “plan B” for winter, which would involve mandatory face masks and advice to work from home.
Professor Openshaw, who works at Imperial College London, told BBC Breakfast on Saturday: “I’m very fearful that we’re going to have another lockdown Christmas if we don’t act soon.
“We know that with public health measures the time to act is immediately. There’s no point in delaying. If you do delay then you need to take even more stringent actions later. The immediacy of response is absolutely vital if you’re going to get things under control.
“We all really, really want a wonderful family Christmas where we can all get back together. If that’s what we want, we need to get these measures in place now in order to get transmission rates right down.”
On Friday, minutes of a Sage advisory group meeting revealed it has also told the government it should prepare for the “rapid deployment” of basic anti-coronavirus measures.
Ministers have so far resisted the reintroduction of curbs contained in “plan B”, insisting that “plan A” was still working. This refers to the vaccine rollout – though both the booster campaign and provision for children are moving more slowly than hoped.
But the World Health Organisation has warned that the vaccine alone will not be able to lift the world out of the pandemic.
Spokesperson Margaret Harris told Times Radio on Saturday: “The problem is focusing on one thing, the vaccine isn't going to get us out of this. We really have to do other measures.
“We have got to be serious about not crowding. We have still got to be looking at wearing the masks, when you're indoors particularly.”
Some elements of “plan B” have already begun to take effect. These include warning the public of the potential for rising infections – as Sajid Javid, the health secretary, did in midweek – and giving extra support to parts of the country experiencing “enduring transmission” of Covid-19.
Chancellor Rishi Sunak told The Times on Saturday the country could not return to “significant economic restrictions” and that the vaccine rollout meant this was not necessary, while Boris Johnson said on Friday that another lockdown was not planned.
However, Adam Finn, a member of the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation, told Times Radio: “We know the vaccines work. We know that giving boosters, particularly to the oldest people who got vaccinated first and also to children now who were getting infection in large numbers, will do something to reduce the amount of virus in circulation.
“But I think it's quite questionable whether the chancellor is right that those two things, by themselves, are adequate to get things under control sufficiently to avoid the risk of further restrictions of the kind we saw last year.
“I think we do probably need to do more than that now and, in particular, we need to stop putting out the message or the suggestion that everything else can go back to normal because I think that is rash.”