Millions of people in England could remain under the strictest lockdown measures until Easter, a senior scientific adviser to the UK government has warned.
Boris Johnson on Saturday placed over 17 million people in London and the southeast under a strict new ‘Tier 4’ system under which travel out of the area is banned and non-essential shops are shut.
Asked whether the new restrictions could last until April, Professor Neil Ferguson on Monday said “possibly” and added: “It’s not looking optimistic right now.”
Ferguson said it was a race between the coronavirus vaccine and the highly-infectious variant of the virus.
Johnson’s government announced news of the mutant strain last week and said it was responsible for soaring rates of new Covid cases across London and the southeast of England.
UK Health Secretary Matt Hancock said on Sunday that the new Tier 4 restrictions could be in place for “months.”
Millions of people in England could remain under the strictest lockdown measures until Easter as a highly infectious mutant strain of the coronavirus was blamed for a soaring rate of new cases of the coronavirus across London and the southeast.
Professor Neil Ferguson, the epidemiologist and UK government adviser who persuaded Prime Minister Boris Johnson to introduce a national lockdown in March, said that the new “Tier 4” measures introduced over the weekend could “possibly” remain in place until April.
“This virus is unpredictable,” he told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme on Monday morning when asked how long such measures might last, adding that it was now a race between the coronavirus vaccine and the variant of the virus.
“How people behave is unpredictable. We will track the epidemic as we always have done and policy will be informed on the basis of that. Tiers are reviewed every two weeks and will continue to be reviewed,” Ferguson said.
“It’s not looking optimistic right now.”
It comes after Matt Hancock, the UK health secretary, said on Sunday that the new Tier 4 restrictions could be in place for months until the government had successfully vaccinated the most vulnerable groups because the virus was “out of control.”
“It is an enormous challenge until we can get the vaccine rolled out to protect people. This is what we face over the next couple of months,” he told Sky News.
Johnson on Saturday announced that 17.7 million people living in south-east England would be placed under a new “Tier 4” system. People living under those rules are banned from travelling and all non-essential shops are closed.
The UK prime minister said the new measures were necessary because scientists had identified a new strain of the virus that could be passed on “significantly more easily” than previous variants.
Government analysis found that the strain, which is believed to have originated in the county of Kent, could be up to 70% more transmissible, raising the prospect that even the strictest lockdown measures such as those seen in March may not be enough to prevent the virus from spreading.
The prime minister also performed a dramatic U-turn on plans to relax rules over Christmas to allow people to spend up to five days with their family in different parts of the country because the move would spread the new strain of the virus even more quickly.
Professor Ferguson said that the UK now faced a race to vaccinate enough people to control the spread of the virus.
“The problem with lockdown is [that] whilst it’s effective at slowing spread and saving lives, it’s only a holding action,” he told BBC Radio 4.
“The final answer to this is the rollout of the vaccine so the faster we can get the vaccine into people’s arms, the quicker we’ll be able not to go back completely to normal but also to be able to relax restrictions.”
Ferguson quit his role as a top government adviser on the pandemic earlier this year after breaking lockdown rules but sits on a separate group which identifies new strains of the virus, called the New and Emerging Respiratory Virus Threats Advisory Group (Nervtag.)
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