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Britain is taking a risk by easing lockdown on Monday, SAGE scientist says

Professor John Edmunds said he would have preferred to see infections driven down further before relaxing the lockdown

Britain is ‘taking a risk’ by unlocking the country with more than 8,000 new coronavirus cases a day and an ‘unproven’ test and trace system, a Government scientific adviser has warned.

Professor John Edmunds said he would have preferred to see infections driven down further before relaxing the lockdown because the outbreak is still teetering on the verge of spiralling back out of control.

Boris Johnson has announced that, from Monday, people will be permitted to meet in groups of up to six people, shops will reopen and some children will go back to school. 

Professor Edmunds, an epidemiologist at the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine, said the Prime Minister had ‘clearly made a political decision’ because the threat of a second peak remains high. 

He said that, even if the ‘untested’ contact tracing scheme goes smoothly, the country could still suffer 80 deaths a day until a vaccine is developed.

His comments come as the crucial reproduction ‘R’ value remains at between 0.7 and 0.9. The R rate denotes the number of other people an infected patient will pass the sickness on to and it must stay at 1 or below or Britain will face another crisis.

Two other SAGE experts lined up behind Professor Edmunds this morning to caution that measures were being relaxed when the infection rate was still not low enough. 

Professor Edmunds said: ‘Many of us would prefer to see the incidence driven down to lower levels because that then means we have fewer cases occurring before we relax the measures.  

The lockdown rules are increasingly varied across the UK as the home nations butt heads on easing restrictions

The lockdown rules are increasingly varied across the UK as the home nations butt heads on easing restrictions

‘If we had incidence at a lower level then, even if R went up a little bit, we wouldn’t be in a position where we’re overwhelming the health service rapidly.

‘We could tolerate a little bit [of an increase in infections]. At the moment, with relatively high incidence,relaxing the measures and also with an untested track and trace system, I think we are taking some risk here. 

‘Even if that risk does pay off, and we manage to keep the incidence flat, we’re keeping it flat at quite a high level – 8,000 new infections a day.

‘If there’s a 1 per cent infection fatality rate that’s 80 deaths per day, if there’s half a per cent, that’s 40 per day.

‘That’s the amount of deaths we might expect to see going forward. That’s clearly a political decision, it’s not a scientific decision. 

‘It’s pretty clear to me the direction of travel is we’re starting to relax and we’re going to keep the reproduction level at one, but that means we’re keeping the incidence at this level.’ 

Sir Jeremy Farrar, director of the Wellcome Trust

Professor John Edmunds of the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine

Sir Jeremy Farrar, director of the Wellcome Trust and Sage member said in a Twitter post that he ‘agreed with John’ on the clear science advice, appearing to reference Sage colleague Professor John Edmunds, who said on Friday the Government was ‘taking risks’ by relaxing measures from Monday

The government charts previously stated that level four required 'current social distancing measures and restrictions'

The government charts previously stated that level four required ‘current social distancing measures and restrictions’

CONFUSION OVER BORIS’S ALERT MESSAGE

WHAT BORIS TOLD THE LIAISON COMMITTEE ON WEDNESDAY: 

Ministers have insisted throughout that the lockdown would only be eased when the five tests were met.

However, the government has also set up the Covid alert system which describes what people can expect to happen at each level. 

At the Liaison Committee on Wednesday, Mr Johnson said on the covid alert: ‘We’re coming down, the covid alert system, we’re coming down from level four to level three we hope, we’re taking a decision tomorrow.’

WHAT BORIS SAID LAST NIGHT: 

‘This package has been carefully designed so that we can ease the burdens of lockdown while expecting to keep that R below one. I cannot and will not throw away all the gains we have made together, and so the changes we are making are limited and cautious,’ he said.

‘It is thanks to the caution we have shown so far that all five tests are being met. That is not my achievement or the government’s achievement – it is your achievement, only possible thanks to your resolve and dedication to our national purpose to overcome this virus.’

Professor Edmunds’ comments will raise further questions about why Boris Johnson has eased the lockdown while the coronavirus alert level remains so high. 

Despite the PM saying the government’s five tests have been met and it is safe to start relaxing restrictions, No10 confirmed that the alert level remains at four. 

Ministers have insisted throughout that the lockdown would only be eased when the five tests were met.  

However, the government has also set up the Covid alert system which describes what people can expect to happen at each level. 

There was no alert status slide used at the briefing last night, and Mr Johnson did not refer to the level. 

Under the easing in England, different households will be able to see family and friends in groups of six from Monday, although social distancing measures will still have to be followed.

They will also be permitted to use gardens and private outdoor spaces, which was previously banned. Mr Johnson said that meant barbecues are possible.

Schools will start to reopen from Monday, and non-essential shops will follow from June 15.

Professor Edmunds said that without a vaccine or viable treatment at the ready, the Government cannot ease restrictions much more than it already has.

He added: ‘The issue is clearly there’s a need to get the economy restarted and get people back to their jobs. 

‘And clearly there’s a social and mental health need to allow people to meet with friends and family and so on. 

‘A targeted approach is good, it’s not putting everybody in lockdown which of course allows the economy and for us to go back to some level of normality. 

‘But none of us think – that have looked at this in any great detail – that [the track and trace scheme] will be sufficient to be able to hold the reproduction number below one.

‘We will still have to have significant numbers of wider social distancing measures in place. 

Environment Secretary George Eustice struggled to explain the logic behind the arrangements in a round of interviews today

Environment Secretary George Eustice struggled to explain the logic behind the arrangements in a round of interviews today

Boris Johnson (pictured in Downing Street last night) is facing questions over his lockdown easing today as it emerged the coronavirus alert level has not been reduced

‘The basic reproduction number for this virus is three, maybe even more. and so we cannot relax our guard by very much at all.’  

Professor Peter Horby, chairman of the New and Emerging Respiratory Virus Threats Advisory Group (NERVTAG) and a Sage member, backed Professor Edmunds and said Britain could not afford to lose control of the virus.

He told BBC Radio 4 this morning: ‘We really can’t go back to a situation where we’ve got the numbers of cases and deaths we’ve had in the past.’  

Labour’s shadow health minister Justin Madders said: ‘It is crucial for all of us that the Government gets this right. 

‘Easing lockdown must be done as safely as possible. It will only work if there are effective, flexible and local systems in place that have the confidence of the public to ensure that we avoid a second peak of infections.’ 

Sir Jeremy Farrar, director of the Wellcome Trust and Sage member said in a Twitter post that he ‘agreed with John’ on the clear science advice.

Sir Jeremy also said the newly-introduced NHS test and trace system needed to be ‘fully working’ before measures were eased.

He wrote: ‘Covid-19 spreading too fast to lift lockdown in England. Agree with John & clear science advice.

‘TTI (test, trace and isolate) has to be in place, fully working, capable dealing any surge immediately, locally responsive, rapid results & infection rates have to be lower. And trusted.’ 

Environment Secretary George Eustice struggled to explain the logic behind the new lockdown loosening in a round of interviews on Friday.

He admitted that up to six people from different households being able to meet in parks and gardens will not help families of six but said the Government ‘have to draw a line somewhere’.

Speaking on BBC Breakfast, Mr Eustice said: ‘We think that six is about a sensible level. We know that the risk of transmission outdoors is actually very low, but obviously if you’ve got lots of people crowded in a garden, if you’ve got two families of six crowded in, obviously that starts to be more difficult to maintain social distancing.’

Pushed again on whether a family of six could meet anyone else, he added: ‘Obviously if they are six on their own than the answer is these rules don’t really help them very much if they want to meet as a full family.

‘But for instance if Claire (questioner) wanted to go with two of the children and take them to see for instance their grandparents if they have grandparents, or uncles, they would be able to do so.

‘So you have to draw a line somewhere otherwise it goes on and on.’

How is the lockdown being eased in England from Monday? 

What’s changing?

From Monday, people can meet outside in groups of up to six as long as those from different households continue to socially distance.  

– Can I visit family and friends?

Yes . This means that family groups of no more than six can meet in parks and private gardens for chats and even barbecues.

– How far am I allowed to travel?

There are no mileage limits set for how far you are allowed to drive to visit family and friends in England, Northern Ireland and Scotland, but the general advice is to remain in your local area as much as possible.

However, people in Wales will still not be allowed to travel more than five miles from their home for any reason except work or to purchase essentials.

Great, can we hug?

Sadly no. You still cannot risk infection by being too close. The same goes for handshakes or kissing.

If young children from different households are part of the group, they must not share paddling pools, climbing frames, slides or anything that would encourage them to be closer than two metres to each other. 

Can I stay overnight?

Staying overnight at someone else’s home will still not be allowed anywhere in the UK, while even going indoors for any other reason than to access a garden or use the bathroom is prohibited.

However Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon has advised that if the distance travelled to meet someone means that you have to use their bathroom, then ‘perhaps you shouldn’t be doing it’.   

Can we barbecue?

Yes, but you must wash your hands, be careful about passing food or plates and keep 6ft apart.

How about entering their house?

Only if there is no other way of getting to the back of the property. 

What about using the toilet?

You can, but you must thoroughly clean any surfaces you touch.

To be extra safe, you could even use a paper towel to open and close bathroom doors and perhaps consider using a kitchen roll to dry hands rather than a towel.

So what if it rains?

You will have to stand under an umbrella or leave. You cannot shelter in someone else’s home.

Can we camp in the garden?

No, Boris Johnson said he did not want you to stay overnight.

Do I only have to see the same group?

No, you can meet different people at different times, but try not to see too many in quick succession.

Can those shielding take part?

No, they must continue to shield if they’re in the clinically extremely vulnerable group and have had a letter from their GP.

What about the over-70s?

If they are not in the shielding group.

We are a family of six – can we meet anyone else?

No. The guidelines say you can meet only up to six people at any one time.

Can we visit a relative in a care home garden?

It would depend on circumstances and the care home’s management.

– What else will I be allowed to do under the new measures?

In England, Monday’s lockdown easing will signal the reopening of schools to allow students in nurseries, early-years settings, and Reception, Year 1 and Year 6 to return to class.

Some shops are also set to reopen, with outdoor retail and car showrooms able to resume operations. 

– When might restrictions be eased further?

Boris Johnson has flagged that more restrictions will be eased on June 15, beginning with the reopening of other non-essential retail shops such as fashion or homeware retail.

Other businesses, such as pubs, hairdressers and cinemas will have to wait until July before they can reopen, the Government has previously said.

– And what’s the timeline elsewhere in the UK?

In Scotland, there is no set timeline as for when more measures might be lifted. The government’s lockdown roadmap stipulates that a number of conditions must be met before any further action is taken, including evidence that the country’s Covid-19 transmission is successfully under control.

Wales’ First Minister Mark Drakeford is expected to announce on Friday that further plans on lifting restrictions will be unveiled in the coming weeks.

Pending the country’s rate of transmission remaining below one, a host of further restrictions are set to be eased in Northern Ireland on June 8, including the reopening of outdoor sports facilities, car showrooms and some non-essential retail stores.

Outdoor weddings with a maximum of 10 people are also set to be allowed and hotels will be able to start taking forward bookings at their own risk.

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