- Millions of people in England could remain under the strictest lockdown measures until Easter, a senior scientific advisor to the UK government has warned.
- Prime Minister Boris Johnson on Saturday placed over 17 million people in London and other parts of southeastern England under a strict new “Tier 4” system of stay-at-home orders and travel restrictions.
- Asked whether the new restrictions could last until April, the government advisor 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 new variant of the virus that is spreading in southeastern England.
- UK Health Secretary Matt Hancock on Sunday said the new restrictions could be in place for “months.”
- Visit Business Insider’s homepage for more stories.
Millions of people in England could remain under the strictest lockdown measures until Easter as a new strain of the coronavirus was blamed for a soaring rate of new cases of the coronavirus across London and other parts of the country’s southeast.
Neil Ferguson, the epidemiologist who has advised the UK government and helped persuade Prime Minister Boris Johnson to introduce a national lockdown in March, said 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” program 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,” Ferguson said. “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.
“It’s not looking optimistic right now.”
A Downing Street representative on Monday said: “We will always continue to keep the latest scientific data and transmission rate of the virus under review.
“We obviously won’t keep these rules in place longer than is necessary, but it’s important to look at scientific evidence and data in order to inform our decisions.”
Ferguson’s comments came 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 southeastern England would be placed under a new Tier 4 system. People living under those rules are barred from travelling, and all shops considered nonessential are closed.
The UK prime minister said the new measures were necessary because scientists had identified a new strain of the virus that they fear 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 but has been detected in other countries, 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 from multiple households to spend up to five days together in different parts of the country.
Ferguson said the UK 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 advisor on the pandemic earlier this year after breaking lockdown rules but sits on a separate group that identifies new strains of the virus, called the New and Emerging Respiratory Virus Threats Advisory Group.