UK is ‘cautiously’ easing lockdown based on ‘overall view’ of scientists, says Alok Sharma


Business Secretary Alok Sharma (Pippa Fowles/10 Downing Street/Handout via REUTERS)
Business Secretary Alok Sharma (Pippa Fowles/10 Downing Street/Handout via REUTERS)

THE British government is following scientific advice in cautiously easing the coronavirus lockdown, Alok Sharma said on Monday (1), after criticism from some prominent epidemiologists.

“Of course scientific advice does differ, but I think the key point is what is the overall view from SAGE?” the business secretary told BBC TV.

“The overall view from SAGE — the scientific advisory group on emergencies which advises the government — their overall view is that we must do this cautiously and that is precisely what we are doing,” Sharma said, adding that if people obeyed the rules there was a good likelihood that R0 would not go above 1.

“These are very cautious steps that we are taking,” he stressed, while adding it was a “very sensitive moment”.

English schools reopened today for the first time since they were shut 10 weeks ago because of the coronavirus pandemic, but many parents planned to keep children at home amid fears ministers were moving too fast.

The easing of strict measures will mean classes will restart for some younger children, up to six people can meet outside in England, outdoor markets can reopen, elite competitive sport can resume without spectators and more than two million of the most vulnerable will now be allowed to spend time outdoors.

On Sunday, Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab defended the government’s loosening of the lockdown, saying it was the “right step to be taking” at this time.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson has come under fire from some scientists for easing a lockdown put in place 10 weeks ago, with several saying it was a premature and risky move in the absence of a fully functioning system to track new outbreaks.

Britain has one of the world’s highest death rates from COVID-19 and the government says it is easing the stringent lockdown cautiously to balance the need to restart the economy while also trying to prevent another increase in the number of infections.

“We are confident that this is the right step to be taking at this moment in time,” Raab told Sky News. “We are taking those steps very carefully, based on the science but also based on our ability now to monitor the virus.”

From Monday, up to six people will be able to meet outside in England, some school classes will restart, elite competitive sport can resume without spectators and more than two million people who have been “shielding” will be allowed to spend time outdoors.

England’s deputy chief medical officer, Jenny Harries, emphasised the need for people to remain on their guard.

“This is a really, really critical time. So where we are seeing (that) government is easing measures, the public really, really need to stick to those measures,” she told a news conference.

TEST AND TRACE

At the heart of the strategy to ease the lockdown is a system to test and trace those people who have come into contact with confirmed cases of Covid-19.

On Sunday, the government said it had met its 200,000 capacity testing target, including the means for 40,000 antibody tests a day, which Health Secretary Matt Hancock described as “an important milestone”.

Ministers also say the tracing system is already working, though some scientists warned that it is too early to say whether it is fit for purpose and fear that it might not be able to cope if the lockdown easing increases the transmission rate.

Britain has recorded more than 38,000 deaths from confirmed Covid-19 cases. The Office of National Statistics and other sources of data put the figure of fatalities from suspected and confirmed cases at 48,000.

Peter Openshaw, a member of the New and Emerging Respiratory Virus Threats Advisory Group and who sits on the government’s scientific advisory group, said he shared other scientists’ “deep concern”.

“I think unlocking too fast carries a great risk that all the good work that has been put in by everyone to try to reduce transmission may be lost,” he told the BBC’s Andrew Marr Show.

London Mayor Sadiq Khan tweeted that he was “deeply concerned we are now rushing too fast to lift lockdown measures”.

“I urge Londoners to act with caution — lives depend on it,” he added.