Pubs, bars and restaurants should remain closed until May, as scientists warn lifting restrictions too early could lead to a surge in Covid-19 cases.
The call to keep hospitality venues shut comes after Prime Minister Boris Johnson acknowledged that it is still “too early to say” when the current lockdown measures could be eased.
Early March ‘too soon’
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The NHS is currently vaccinating at a rate of 200 jabs per minute, but with a further 1,290 deaths reported on Thursday (21 January), experts modelling the pandemic suggest cases will spike if restrictions are lifted in March.
Scientists have warned that early March, when the 15 million priority patients will have been given the first dose of the vaccine, would still be too soon to allow more freedoms. Even by the end of April , when all over 50s are expected to have been vaccinated, experts believe it would be dangerous to a complete easing of restrictions.
Dr Marc Baguelin, who sits on the Scientific Pandemic Influenza Group on Modelling (SPI-M) which advises the government, said the opening of the hospitality sector before May would lead to another “bump” in transmission.
On BBC Radio 4’s World At One he said it would result in “another wave of some extent” and “at best you will keep on having a very, very unsustainable level of pressure on the NHS”.
Experts from Edinburgh University modelling the impact of the pandemic pointed out that even if 90 per cent of people were vaccinated that still left 10 per cent without protection. And with little known about what impact the vaccine will have on transmission - and the risk of long Covid in younger people - they suggested restrictions should only be lifted slowly, with scenarios mapping what would happen if restrictions continued through until the winter.
Releasing all measures at the end of April, once the first phase of the vaccination programme covering over-50s, those in high-risk groups and frontline health and social workers have received a jab, could still lead to a huge surge in cases.
Matt Keeling, professor of populations and disease at the university, said one scenario the model considered was the complete relaxation of all control measures in April when there has been three months of vaccination and 30 million doses.
He said: “Completely stopping all controls is disastrous, we get massive peaks of both daily deaths and hospital admissions.”
While he acknowledged that no-one was suggesting that relaxing all measures immediately was a viable strategy, “it just shows that even at that point, you can’t relax, even at 30 million doses”.
What has the pub industry said?
The suggestion that pubs and restaurants could potentially remain closed until May has been met with dismay by those working in the industry.
The British Beer and Pub Association, the leading trade association representing brewers and pubs, has said pubs across the UK will be lost for good if they cannot open until summer this year and are not provided with financial support from the government.
Emma McClarkin, Chief Executive of the British Beer & Pub Association, said: “If pubs are forced to stay close until May, it would mean they have faced 14 months of lockdowns and restrictions. How on earth could the government expect them to survive?
“UK pubs will be screaming ‘mayday’ long before a May reopening without significantly more financial support from government.”
The trade association has also called for the government to be clearer in its roadmap for the reopening of the industry.
Ms McClarkin added: “The government has a duty to tell publicans when it plans to let them reopen with a clear roadmap alongside the vaccination programme.
“If it won’t be until May then it needs to extend financial support for them to survive and to brewers whose businesses also face jeopardy.”
More than 40,000 jabs per day
Official figures up to 20 January showed that 4,973,248 people have now received their first dose of a Covid-19 vaccine, which is an increase of 363,508 on the previous day.
Based on these figures, an average of 401,070 people will need to be vaccinated per day to meet the target of vaccinating the 15 million highest priority cases by 15 February.
The government also said that, as of 9am on Thursday (20 January), there had been a further 37,892 lab-confirmed cases of coronavirus in the UK, bringing the total number to 3,543,646.
Professor Anthony Harnden, deputy chairman of the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation (JCVI), told the BBC the lockdown should continue until the late spring.
He said: “Immunisation is the way out, but it’s not at the moment a quick fix and people ought to realise that once they’ve been immunised they are not 100 per cent protected, and therefore they are not invincible.”