A more “flexible” form of the UK’s coronavirus lockdown could remain in place for six months, one of the Government’s most senior health advisers has said.
Dr Jenny Harries, the deputy chief medical officer, said on Thursday that the expert team involved in combating Covid-19 were “looking at a scenario” of some form of shutdown that would stretch past the summer.
Scientists and medical advisers fear that lifting the lockdown too soon could lead to a “sudden upsurge” in infections. On Thursday, the leading expert in charge of modelling the spread of coronavirus suggested the daily infections and death toll would peak within three weeks before the UK starts to see a decline.
Boris Johnson introduced the nationwide lockdown earlier this week, closing non-essential shops and enforcing a ban on social gatherings of more than two people.
The Prime Minister said the lockdown would be reviewed in three weeks, but The Telegraph understands it is “almost certain” to be continued for at least at least another three weeks until the beginning of May.
Dr Harries went further on Thursday, accepting that, while the lockdown was causing economic and social harm, it would be problematic to lift it without other restrictions instead.
In a televised press conference, she said the country could offer flexibility in the “measures of lockdown” used over the course of the next six months in a bid to contain the coronavirus outbreak.
“As we are watching the curve, it could be possible – definitely not now, because we are only just starting to get some benefit from this – to start moving on that,” she said at the Downing Street press conference.
“The issue here is, exactly as we have done all the way through, about keeping watching the epidemiology and flexing those interventions at the right time, in the right place, to deliver what we need. Obviously, the whole country, myself included, will want to be back to normal as soon as we can.”
The comments came in clarification after Dr Harries, interviewed on Radio 4’s Woman’s Hour earlier in the day, said: “We clearly don’t want people to change their lifestyles in the way they are having to do for very good reasons any longer than is necessary.
“Equally, we don’t want to lift those measures sooner and find that we have a sudden upsurge and our efforts will have been wasted.”
She said that the team “will be looking in two or three weeks time” at the effects of the lockdown, but added: “I think overall we are looking at a scenario of over a six-month period, but not necessarily with a lockdown of this level going on throughout that time.
“We are likely able to raise some of the measures as we go forward and keep it in a very controlled pattern. I would be very unwise to put a specific time limit on it, but we will be looking very closely in two or three weeks time to see how successful we’ve all been.”
Sources have suggested that lockdowns could remain in place in certain hotspot areas as they emerge, and that self-isolation for anybody with potential symptoms, and their families, would also be kept.
Downing Street is desperate to keep the economy ticking over while implementing measures to defeat the coronavirus spread. It has controversially allowed “non-essential” workers who cannot work from home, such as builders, to continue work on construction sites for fear of the economic damage stopping that would do.
Dr Harries defended the Government’s timing on the introduction of the lockdown – critics have accused Mr Johnson of being slow to react and losing a valuable two weeks. Asked if the rules were introduced too late, she said: “I’m very confident that they weren’t,” insisting the country had run its response to the virus “entirely based on science”.
She added: “When we look at other countries who have announced sudden lockdowns, when you look at what they mean by lockdown sometimes it’s not entirely clear.”
In northern Italy, she said local residents had simply fled south to defeat the lockdown, taking the disease with them.
Professor Neil Ferguson, of Imperial College London and the chief adviser to the Government on modelling the virus spread, struck an upbeat note on Thursday.
Prof Ferguson and his team had concluded that up to a quarter of a million lives in the UK could be lost if the virus was allowed to spread unchecked and without the lockdown, prompting Mr Johnson to enforce social distancing rules.
Prof Fergsuon said Britain was going to suffer “a very difficult few weeks, particularly in hotspots – London for instance” but believed the NHS, “while intensely stretched”, would now cope.
He told the BBC: “Perhaps in about three weeks, we hope these current measures will start flattening that curve and start bringing numbers down.
“London is going to be very difficult in the next two or three weeks. All I would say is, with the lockdown now in place, those numbers are going to start to plateau.”
A source close to Downing Street discussions on lifting the lockdown said on Thursday that there was no immediate plan to remove it and it would be reinstated for at least another three weeks when Mr Johnson reviews his decision.
Dr Paul Hunter, an Essex University academic and WHO adviser on its Covid-19 health emergency panel, said he believed the virus would peak in two to three weeks but the lockdown was likely to last far longer.
“I think a further three months would be a best guess estimate, so that by the end of June or July we can ease off at least a bit,” he said. “I don’t think self-isolation rules for people with symptoms will change but the rest of the social distancing measures, I think, will be relaxed by the summer.”