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Social distancing may be needed for 'most of year' to beat coronavirus, ministers told

NHS Coronavirus sign

4 min read

Ministers have been told that social distancing measures will need to be in place for "at least half of the year" to stop the NHS being overwhelmed by coronavirus patients.

The Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (SAGE), which advises the Government on its response to the disease outbreak, said a policy of "alternating between periods of more and less strict social distancing measures" could "plausibly" keep critical cases inside the capacity of the health service.

But it added: "These would need to be in place for at least most of a year. Under such as policy, at least half of the year would be spent under the stricter social distancing measures."

The opinion has been published by the Government as part of a transparency push aimed at shoring up public confidence in its response to the epidemic.

It comes after Boris Johnson said the UK could "turn the tide" on the coronavirus crisis within 12 weeks, although Health Secretary Matt Hancock has stressed that that will only happen if people follow advice to distance themselves from others and avoid unnecessary trips beyond the home.

"If people don't follow the advice, it will be longer," the Cabinet minister said on Friday.

The stark advice to the Government, dated March 16, said the earlier strategy of isolating those with coronavirus symptoms, their wider households, and the social distancing of people most vulnerable to the effects of the virus was "very unlikely to prevent critical care facilities being overwhelmed".

But it said the latest plan to extend social distancing to the general public and close schools on top of the existing measures "would be likely to control the epidemic when kept in place for a long period".

They advised ministers to implement those measures "as soon as practical, at least in the first instance".

According to SAGE, UK nations and regions could be left to determine when they should impose and then lift the year's-worth of stricter measures, with the advisers emphasising the need to reduce contact between people rather than imposing a strict deadline on how long they should run for.

And they said: "There would be a 2-3 week delay between measures being put into place and their impact being felt in ICU [intensive care units]".


Publishing the advice, chief scientific adviser Sir Patrick Vallance said the UK faced "an incredibly fast-moving, developing situation".

He added: "The UK is home to experts who are at the forefront of their chosen fields and we are making full use of their expertise to grow our understanding of COVID-19 as we work tirelessly to tackle this disease.

"The collective evidence we have published today has played a considerable role in shaping our recommendations on when, how and why the government have made the interventions it has so far."

Elsewhere in the batch of documents, ministers are advised on the best ways to communicate with the public about the Government's response. 

Officials say ministers must emphasise “collective” messages like “We are all in this together” and spell out why the UK approach differs from other countries to avoid a loss of public confidence.

Ministers have also been told they should frame voluntary quarantine measures as an "act of altruistic civic duty" - while the knock-on effects of school closures and advice to shut down large gatherings are also discussed.

"If all policies are applied, then the closure of schools, the loss of usual outlets for social interactions, and the absence of grandparents and entire families as a result of isolation might lead to unexpected displacement of activity," the advice states.

"For example, house parties, congregation of children in parks, and queues at takeaways [could take place]. Consideration will be needed as to how to manage these situations without causing confrontation."


The Government has meanwhile been told that moves to isolate full households affected by the virus "will have a disproportionate impact on poorer families" by reducing their income, increasing their utility costs and reducing access to services normally provided by schools.

"Adults who do not use the internet... will also be particular[ly] affected," the advice says.

The publication of the Government documents comes as Chancellor Rishi Sunak prepares to unveil a radical package of measures to underwrite the wages of workers facing redundancy due to the coronavirus outbreak.

The move follows intense pressure for the Chancellor to go even further in his attempts to prop up the economy as normal life across the world is put on hold to fight the pandemic.

Mr Sunak has already announced measures worth nearly £400bn to help businesses survive the lockdown through a series of tax breaks, loans and grants.

But MPs from all parties, as well as trade unions and businesses, have insisted the Government must step in to effectively pick up the country's wage bill in order to avoid a wave of redundancies.

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