Applying a handbrake to lockdown easing is welcome, but may not be enough to stop a rise in infections in the UK experts have warned.
SAGE, the government’s scientific advisory group, warned on Friday that it did not have confidence that the reproduction rate, R, was currently below 1 in England, based on rapidly reported data. The latest estimate for R, based on data with a delay of a couple of weeks, is now between 0.8 and 0.9.
According to new data from the Office for National Statistics released on Friday, about one in 1,500 individuals had Covid-19 on 23 July, compared with one in 1,800 on 15 July and one in 2,000 on 2 July – figures that appear to have been revised from previous estimates. The data also suggest the number of new infections per day is rising.
The rise in cases has caused Boris Johnson to announce it is time to “squeeze that brake pedal in order to keep that virus under control”, putting plans to further ease lockdown in England on ice.
The shift means that English businesses such as skating rinks and bowling alleys will no longer be allowed to open from 1 August, while beauty salons will not be able to restart close-up treatments, such as eyebrow threading.
In addition, from 8 August the wearing of face coverings will be required in a wider range of English settings, including museums.
But while many experts have welcomed the announcements, some caution such measures may not be enough.
“Simply stopping new measures only means the existing rate will not increase further, unless it results in a better awareness of the importance of existing measures or voluntary uptake of additional distancing measures,” Rowland Kao, professor of veterinary epidemiology and data science at the University of Edinburgh, told the Guardian.
Robert West, professor of health psychology at University College London, agreed.
“Putting a brake on further easing of the lockdown will probably not reduce infection rates but it may slow the speed with which they rise,” he said.
“The Government needs to grasp the nettle and recognise that it needs to follow Scotland’s example and use the next few weeks to get to zero Covid-19 before the autumn – and then things can start to ease safely,” West said, adding that travel restrictions within the UK and internationally as well as a fully functioning test and trace system are among the measures needed.
Dr Daniel Lawson, a lecturer in statistical science at the University of Bristol, said that while there were difficulties in measurement, the ONS data provided some evidence of a rise in the infection rate.
“The UK is clearly close to the tipping point at which the infection grows,” he said.
Lawson warned that the situation might get worse before the effectiveness of Johnson’s rules tightening measures could be assessed, due to delays in rising infections showing up in data.
“Modelling the effectiveness of interventions is proving difficult because the intervention cannot be separated from the overall public attitude to risk,” he added.
Paul Hunter, a professor of medicine at the University of East Anglia welcomed Johnson’s handbrake approach, adding that the rise in R was likely to have been driven by local outbreaks, meaning that – at least in theory – additional measures only needed to be applied to specific areas.
But if this approach fails, for example due to people travelling out of a local lockdown area or a delay in implementing measures, nationwide efforts might be required – albeit with less strict rules than in April, he added.
Lawson also noted that it was as yet unknown whether local lockdowns and other actions were enough.
“The economic and health damage caused by a high infection rate suggests that caution is appropriate, which may well require further actions to be taken,” he said.