England may have to endure future lockdowns later this year, public health experts warned on Sunday, amid growing fears that the NHS faces a “miserable winter” in the months ahead.
In an interview with the BBC, Dr Susan Hopkins, the strategic response director for Covid-19 at Public Health England, argued that the country would have to live with coronavirus, adding that in the past influenza outbreaks were not normally managed by lockdowns.
The country was now equipped with additional methods to manage the virus, she said, noting that in the coming six to nine months new drugs would be available that could improve treatment for those hospitalised.
However, Hopkins warned that some restrictions may still be needed towards the end of this year. “We may have to do further lockdowns this winter,” she said. “I can’t predict the future, it really depends on whether the hospitals start to become overwhelmed at some point.
“But I think we will have alternative ways to manage this, through vaccination, through antivirals, through drugs, through testing that we didn’t have last winter and all of those things allow us different approaches.”
Prime minister Boris Johnson is coming under pressure from some Tory MPs to stick to his revised plan to lift all lockdown restrictions on July 19. The planned move to Step 4 of the government’s easing “road map” was delayed last Monday owing to the rapid spread of the Delta variant of coronavirus first identified in India.
When questioned on Hopkins’ comments, justice secretary Robert Buckland said it was too early to rule anything out. “The essence of the virus is you can’t ever say mission accomplished,” he told Times Radio.
Professor Calum Semple, a professor of child health and outbreak medicine at the University of Liverpool, also warned on Sunday that scientists were “predicting a rough July, August and then a rough winter period”.
Speaking to Times Radio, Semple, a member of the government’s Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies, said: “I suspect we’ll have a pretty miserable winter because the other respiratory viruses are going to come back and bite us quite hard. But after that, I think we’ll be seeing business as normal next year.”
The warnings came as the government races to fully inoculate all over-50s and offer a first dose of the Covid-19 vaccination to all adults before the final lifting of curbs on July 19.
More than 700,000 vaccination slots were booked on Friday, as the government opened up the programme to all over-18s and at the weekend thousands queued to receive their jab in pop-up centres at London sports grounds, including the London Stadium.
More than 42m people across the UK have now received their first dose, while 31m have been given both jabs.
Hopkins said that further data were needed to assess whether the government could reopen ahead of July 19, but stressed the importance of getting “the maximum amount of people vaccinated” to ensure the country was in a strong position in the winter.
She also noted that PHE was conducting a study looking into whether daily testing could work as an alternative to self-isolation.
While the decision would ultimately be a political one, Hopkins said she could conceive of a scenario whereby there were “alternatives to isolation for people who’ve had two doses of vaccine”.
Meanwhile, Greater Manchester mayor Andy Burnham accused the Scottish government of “hypocrisy” over a travel ban to the North West.
First minister and Scottish National party leader Nicola Sturgeon announced on Friday all non-essential travel to Manchester and Salford would be banned from Monday, but the Labour mayor said neither he nor his administration were contacted beforehand.
“That is exactly what the SNP always accuse the Westminster government of doing, riding roughshod over people,” he told the BBC’s The Andrew Marr Show.
“The SNP are treating the north of England with the same contempt in bringing that in without any consultation with us. I just think it’s double standards, it’s hypocrisy.”