An extension to the national lockdown in England has not been ruled out, amid warnings from medical experts that a tougher regional tier system is needed until a vaccine is available.
The UK government reportedly plans to make a decision on how to exit the current lockdown on 2 December soon, with the strategy to be agreed next week.
‘Strengthening’ the tier system
Despite Communities Secretary Robert Jenrik stating on 17 November that ministers want to see a “significant easing” on Covid restrictions next month, he warned that tighter controls may be needed in the top tier, Tier 3.
The warning comes after medical director of Public Health England (PHE), Susan Hopkins, said the tier system may have to be strengthened to “get us through the winter months.”
Hopkins said the lowest Tier 1 measures that covered huge parts of England had “very little effect,” while Tier 2 restrictions only worked in some areas.
However, documents from the Scientific Pandemic Influenza Group on Modelling (SPI-M), which reports to the Scientific Advisory Committee for Emergencies (SAGE), said there was a “clear effect” on infection rates from strict Tier 3 interventions. This effect was much less in areas under Tier 1 and Tier 2 measures.
SPI-M believes infections will rise at the same rate as before if the same three tier system is brought back in on 2 December.
Dr Hopkins said, “We see very little effect from Tier 1 and I think when we look at what tiers may be there in the future, we will have to think about strengthening them in order to get us through the winter months until the vaccine is available for everyone.”
Will lockdown be extended?
Health Secretary Matt Hancock said he was unable to rule out an extension to the current national lockdown, adding it is still too early to know whether Covid infection rates have been brought down significantly enough to allow restrictions to be eased.
Mr Jenrick said any extension of the lockdown would require a vote of Parliament, but it is expected that England will instead return to a tiered system. How strict the system is will be dependent on infection rate data.
Asked if there could be a tougher tier than Tier 3 in the new system, he told BBC Breakfast, “We haven’t come to a decision on that. The Tier 3 that we had before was just considered a baseline.
“And then we did ask local areas whether they would be willing to go further and some did.
“My own area of Nottinghamshire, the local council chose to go over and above and limit the sale of alcohol for off-licences and so on after a certain time, so that people didn’t go home and have parties or drink alcohol on the streets.
“So there were some tweaks to the tiers that you’re seeing in some parts of the country and it’s that sort of thing that we now need to consider.”
Hopes for a vaccine
The decision on December lockdown measures comes following the news of a new vaccine from US firm Moderna on Monday 16 November, which has been shown to be almost 95 per cent effective in protecting against Covid-19.
Meanwhile, a similar vaccine from Pfizer/BioNTech is more than 90 per cent effective.
It is hoped that large numbers of people in the UK could be vaccinated in the spring.
Sir John Bell, regius professor of medicine at Oxford University and a member of the Government’s vaccine taskforce, said, “I think the idea that we’re going to vaccinate a very large percentage of the population by spring is completely possible.
“And I think that will make a big difference because people will be then less anxious about catching the disease because they will be vaccinated, transmissions will fall to a low level and we may not be back completely to normal but things are going to look dramatically different by the spring.”