New National Coronavirus Restrictions Are Needed To “Prevent a Catastrophe", Sage Advisor Warns
Large swathes of the South and East of England are all in tier 4 coronavirus restrictions as cases continue to rise (PA)
Government scientific advisors are warning that a stricter lockdown is needed to avoid "catastrophe" at the start of 2021, as coronavirus cases continue to rise.
Andrew Hayward, who sits on the New and Emerging Respiratory Virus Threats Advisory Group (Nervtag), says new national measures must be brought in to deal with the new mutant strains of Covid-19 that can be transmitted more easily.
Professor Hayward told BBC Radio 4's Today programme: "I think we are entering a very dangerous new phase of the pandemic and we're going to need decisive, early, national action to prevent a catastrophe in January and February.
"A 50% increase in transmissibility means that the previous levels of restrictions that worked before won't work now, and so Tier 4 restrictions are likely to be necessary or even higher than that.
"I think we're really looking at a situation where we're moving into near lockdown, but we've got to learn the lessons from the first lockdown.”
It comes as teaching unions are calling for schools to remain closed next week until a functioning testing system is put in place.
Professor Hayward, who studies infectious diseases epidemiology at University College London, said the reopening of classrooms should take place "maybe a little bit later" over fears they could help spread the disease.
Adding that reopening would mean "we're going to have to have increased, strict restrictions in other areas of society to pay for that”, a view echoed by fellow Sage committee member Dr Mike Tildesley.
He said something is needed to bring the R number down to below 1.0, telling Times Radio: "What looks like is going to happen is possibly a slight delay to the start of term, and then ramping up mass testing to ensure that we rapidly detect cases - not just people showing symptoms but also asymptomatic cases so we can rapidly isolate children."
At the moment 24 million people - 43% of the population - in the South and East of England are in the highest level of restrictions.
Tomorrow sees a review of the tier system, with more areas expected to be placed into virtual lockdown after the total death toll moved past 70,000 and the UK recorded its highest single day total of positive test results on Monday.
Earlier today Dr Sonia Adesara, a London A&E doctor, said the capital's hospitals are very close to becoming overwhelmed, saying: "The hospitals are extremely busy - we have seen a massive rise in people coming in with Covid-19 over the past week and this is on top of an increase in the non-Covid cases we see at this time of year.
"Just like the first wave we are also suffering from staff shortages, staff are getting Covid-19 again and it is extremely difficult, the hospitals are very full."
She told BBC Breakfast: ”The situation is untenable and I think we are very close to becoming overwhelmed."
Speaking to the same programme the head of one of the UK's biggest teaching unions called for schools to remain closed while testing schemes are up and running.
Geoff Barton, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, said: "Eminent scientists have said that schools should remain closed; that's what unions I think have been responding to."
He welcomed the government's plans for soldiers to offer remote support for testing, but added: "We're educationists, we can support the Government and it is good we are going to have some members of the Army.
"But for 3,500 secondary schools, 1,500 troops doing webinars probably isn't the Government response that we were looking for.”
It follows Mary Bousted and Kevin Courtney, the joint general secretaries of the National Education Union, writing to education secretary Gavin Williamson and Boris Johnson to call for schools and colleges to remain closed for at least the first two weeks of January, except for vulnerable children and the children of key workers.
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