The government’s strategy of waiting until coronavirus is peaking before closing schools and asking vulnerable people to stay at home has been criticised by experts, who warned that further measures were needed to stop the epidemic spiralling out of control.
Many scientists said they were surprised that Britain had not imposed similar restrictions to those brought in by countries such as Italy, France, Ireland and China, including travel restrictions, keeping people apart in restaurants, shutting museums and asking people to avoid crowds.
The World Health Organisation (WHO) also appeared to criticise the UK’s approach, saying countries should take a comprehensive approach to testing, quarantine, social distancing and contact tracing.
Modelling by the University of Sussex, seen exclusively by The Telegraph, shows that imposing lockdown measures early would break the epidemic up into two lower peaks, easing pressure on the NHS.
But the Government says it is delaying asking people to stay at home for as long as possible in case they become “fatigued” by the process and break their isolation just as coronavirus is peaking.
Experts said that was a risky strategy and also criticised the Government for stopping testing and contact tracing in the community, claiming public health officials will not be able to predict the peak if they do not know the numbers.
Dr Bharat Pankhankia, a senior clinical lecturer at the University of Exeter, said: “They won’t know if there is a surge in the community, and not releasing numbers can give the false perception that we don’t have infection, causing people to lower their guard.
“I would have brought in more rigid controls. If you’ve got a smouldering fire with the potential for an inferno, you start dampening it down early – you don’t wait until the inferno has started. We need to go hard and fast.”
On Friday, France became the latest country to close all schools, universities and nurseries. Ireland announced the closure of all schools and childcare facilities and other public spaces, such as museums, this week, while Scotland has banned gatherings of more than 500 people.
Professor Jimmy Whitworth, of the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine said: “I am surprised that stronger measures haven’t been introduced at this stage, but I anticipate they will come in the next week or two.
“The longer we delay in introducing social distancing measures, the harder it is for these to be effective at delaying the outbreak.”
Sir Patrick Vallance, the government’s chief scientific adviser, appeared to admit that the UK strategy is to allow millions of people to become infected so that “herd immunity” can be built up to protect more vulnerable people.
Sir Patrick said at least 60 per cent of the population – around 39 million people – would need to catch the disease before enough people were immune for it to mean that the virus could no longer transmit in the community.
“Our aim is to try and reduce the peak, broaden the peak, not suppress it completely,” he said. “The vast majority of people get a mild illness, to build up some kind of herd immunity so more people are immune to this disease, and we reduce the transmission and at the same time we protect those who are most vulnerable to it. Those are the key things we need to do.”
But experts have warned that is a risky strategy, given that it was still unclear how the virus affected people and what the long-term implications were.
Jeremy Hunt, the former Health Secretary and chairman of the Health Select Committee, said the UK was now in a “national emergency” and many people “will be surprised and concerned” that more is not being done to stop the spread.
“You would have thought that every single thing we do in that four weeks would be designed to slow the spread of people catching the virus,” he told the BBC.
Mathematicians at the University of Sussex said the Government would only get one shot at bringing in a major intervention, meaning it had to be timed correctly for the biggest impact. Using modelling, they calculated that intervening early would break one large peak into two smaller, more manageable peaks.
The analysis came as a new study showed that the NHS will be short of 20,000 intensive care beds at the worst point of the crisis if nothing is done.
Professor Istvan Kiss, of the University of Sussex, said: “We were thinking of a major intervention, so probably something like most people working from home, closing all the schools, social distancing that’s quite substantial.
“First of all, you don’t know when the peak is. You can’t wait forever. And then you have to think about the capacity of the NHS and the hospitals. So if you are looking to diffuse the peak of the epidemic, it is better to intervene early.
“If you go early, you know what to expect and end up with two lower peaks which are a little more easy to control.”
A petition on the Government’s website calling for a lockdown to be imposed had reached nearly 40,000 signatures by Friday night.
NHS consultant Dr Tony Rao, an old age psychiatrist, called on the government to close schools to protect the elderly and said: “Surely the risk of spread from children to their own family is outweighed by the risk of multiple children being infected and spreading to multiple families, including grandparents? Surely it’s time to close schools? The ‘delay’ phase clearly isn’t working.”
Professor Jonathan Ball, a virologist from the University of Nottingham, warned that new plans to keep people with coughs and fevers inside for seven days was not enough.
“I am concerned that the Government advice on self-isolation does not go far enough,” he said. “There is emerging evidence data that suggests that, in as many as 70 per cent of cases, the infection will present with symptoms similar to a common cold.
“This is serious as it means that, based on Government advice – which specifies persistent cough and raised temperature – most people who can potentially transmit will not be aware of the risk they pose to others and will not self-isolate.”
On Friday, the cross-party truce over coronavirus broke down, with opposition leaders criticising Boris Johnson and calling on the Prime Minister to explain why Britain’s response is so low-key compared to other countries.
Plaid Cymru said in a statement: “You can see growing public concern, and the Government needs to be clear on the reasons it is taking less action than other countries to manage the spread of Covid-19.”
However, other scientists said the social impact of social distancing and isolation could be severe, leading to loneliness for vulnerable groups.