The UK’s chief scientific adviser, Sir Patrick Vallance, has defended the government’s decision not to emulate the stringent measures put in place by other countries to curb the spread of the coronavirus Covid-19, after the prime minister announced the UK was entering the second phase of its plan to tackle the outbreak.
Vallance said this morning that the government had well-thought-out reasons not implementing “eye-catching” measures such as school closures and banning mass gatherings.
Yesterday the prime minister, Boris Johnson, announced that the government had officially moved from the initial containment phase of its novel coronavirus action plan, to the “delay” phase.
In a bid to delay the peak of the virus until the summer months, anyone with a persistent cough or fever is being told to stay at home for at least seven days. Schools must cancel overseas trips for their pupils and the elderly have been advised not to go on cruises.
However, some politicians and medical professionals have said the response does not go far enough. It does not include all of the measures outlined in the “delay” stage of the coronavirus action plan, published last week, such as closing schools and banning large-scale public gatherings.
But Vallance – who appeared at yesterday's Downing Street press conference alongside Johnson and England’s chief medical officer Chris Whitty – said the government was taking an evidence-based approach to tackling the virus.
He told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme that encouraging people with a cough or high temperature to stay home for a week would have a “major effect” on the spread of the virus, but more draconian measures may not.
Vallance was responding in part to comments by former health secretary Jeremy Hunt, who has criticised the government’s response to the outbreak.
Hunt told BBC Newsnight yesterday that it was “surprising and concerning” the government had not brought it more stringent measures, including banning visits to care homes or closing schools.
While it was possible that people could catch Covid-19 at sporting matches, for example, people were more at risk of contracting it at smaller gatherings where people are interacting at close quarters for extended periods.
“It’s eye-catching to say ‘stop those’, but it wouldn’t have a big effect on transmission. That’s not to say we wouldn’t do it at some point but it’s not the most important thing to get in place first,” he said.
Asked about school closures, he said: “One of the questions when you start something is: how are you going to undo it? When you undo it, if you don’t get it right, it bounces back again.”
Schools would therefore need to close for “many months, not a few weeks” to have much effect. This would mean children would probably spend time together outside of school and may be more likely to spend more time with their grandparents, who will be among the most vulnerable to the disease, he said.
Asked whether the government was trying to reduce the risk of the virus receding and then returning later in the year, the chief scientist said: “That is exactly the risk that you would expect from previous epidemics – that if you suppress something very hard, when you release those measures, it bounces back and it bounces back at the wrong time.”
“Our aim is to try and reduce the peak, broaden the peak, not to suppress it completely,” he said.
“What we don’t want is everybody to end up getting it in a short period of time so that we swamp and overwhelm NHS services – so that’s the flattening of the peak. You can’t stop it, so you should [aim to] end up with a broader peak.”
Johnson said yesterday that the government’s current approach could reduce the total number of people who contract the disease by up to 25% and the final death tally by up to 30%.
So far, more than 600 people have tested positive for Covid-19 in the UK, but Vallance said at the press conference that it was "much more likely” between 5,000 and 10,000 people were already infected.
Vallance stressed that most people who contract Covid-19 will experience a “very mild illness”. For this reason, he said if the government is successful in its efforts to “broaden and flatten” the peak of the outbreak, “you should anticipate that more people will get immunity to this and that in itself becomes a protective part of this process”.
Asked yesterday why he was not following the example of nations which have introduced lockdowns of their populations and mass school closures, the prime minister said: "The most important test will be to protect our elderly and most vulnerable people during peak weeks, when there is maximum risk of exposure to the disease and when the NHS will be under the most pressure.
"The most dangerous period is not now, but some weeks away."