When and how should we relax Covid-19 lockdown restrictions in the UK?

There is increasing discussion about how and when we should relax Covid-19 lockdown restrictions in the UK. My view is that we should be guided by data on case numbers, hospitalisations and deaths; and lift restrictions cautiously. In recent weeks, we have seen positive progress on case numbers with the daily number of people with positive Covid-10 tests falling from a peak over 50,000 per day earlier in the year to under 15,000 per day more recently. Hospitalisations and deaths are also falling but will lag behind the decrease in case numbers.

There are reasons to be positive about the future. Vaccination numbers are increasing daily with over 15M people now vaccinated against Covid-19, and administration of second vaccine doses due to start soon, as well as extension of vaccination to younger age groups. We are on target to offer a Covid-19 vaccine to all adults by later in 2021. However, we have seen lower vaccination rates in some groups, such as people from ethnic minorities, and it is essential to work with communities to overcome this vaccine hesitancy.

Another reason for optimism is that a large number of people also have some natural immunity to Covid-19 because of previous infection. Last year’s experience also shows that there is a seasonal effect on case numbers. Hence, we can be optimistic about seeing a decline in Covid-19 case numbers in the summer. We need though to avoid lifting restrictions too quickly and should do so in a gradual manner starting with opening up schools, and then opening up other sectors of the economy and society to avoid an increase in cases, hospitalisations and deaths in the Spring.

Finally, we need to be fully prepared for a potential increase in Covid-19 cases in the Autumn and Winter. This means ensuring that a high proportion of adults have had two doses of vaccine, and that we have a fully functional test and trace system in place by then. We are also likely to need continuing restrictions on overseas travel and travel to the UK; as well as planning for “booster” doses of vaccines to protect against newer and more infectious strains of SARS-CoV-2.

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