UK 'heading back into lockdown next month' – ex chief scientist

The UK could be heading for full lockdown again by the end of the month, according to former government chief scientific adviser Sir David King.

Sir David, who has set up a scientific body called Independent Sage to shadow the UK government’s advisory group, warns that the UK is nowhere near being able to reopen schools safely.

He estimates that the R number – the number of people every one person with the virus infects – will rise by 0.5 with all schools open.

The R number in Wales was most recently estimated at being between 0.7 and 0.9 while in England it is already at 0.8 to 1.0.

This means that a rise of 0.5 would put the R number above one and mean the number of infections would start to grow rapidly and again overwhelm the NHS, costing thousands of lives, unless lockdown measures were brought back in again.

Sir David, 80, told the Mirror that : “The Government has a month to deal with the level of infectivity as it stands now. Reopening schools should be a priority, but we believe we are nowhere near the point where it can be done safely.”

Sir David criticised England’s test and trace system, which is only contacting 50% of contacts in England, saying that increasing this number was vital to making a success of schools returning.

Wales’ system is understood to be more effective but with the two economies so closely interlinked, a rapid spread of the virus in England is likely to cause problems here as well without a return to lockdown.

“We need a proper test and trace system by September,” said Sir David.

“Otherwise I’m sure school opening will put us right back.

“We will see the Government backing lockdowns and, yes, I do think this could happen nationally.”

He added: “Test and trace is still failing dramatically.

“Tracing here is one phone call and you are asked to isolate. There is no follow-up as to whether people do.”

He urged the PM to take track and trace from private firm Serco and let councils run it, as is happening in Wales.

“The Government made a disastrous mistake giving contact tracing to a firm with no healthcare expertise,” he said.

“The Serco contract is up for renewal this month. They’ve had roughly £100million so far. They’ll get £300 million if it’s extended. This is not working.

“When you hit 3,000 new cases a day, it’s an enormous number for any national body to deal with. But break it down into local regions and the numbers become manageable.”

Dr David Nabarro, the World Health Organization’s special envoy on Covid-19, has previously said the virus is “capable of surging back really quickly” and stressed the importance of being able to trace, test and isolate people.

“If we can do that, and do it well, then the surges are kept really small, they’re dealt with quickly and life can go on,” he told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme.

He said he thinks the UK “will do really well” because there is “really good attention to where the virus is locally” and a lot of “public engagement in getting on top of it”.

Researchers from UCL and the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine used computer models to see how the virus might spread in the UK as pupils returned to the classroom and their parents were more able to go back to work or resume other activities.

The study,  now formally published in the Lancet Child and Adolescent Health, shows a second wave could be prevented if:

  • both 75% of people with Covid symptoms were found and 68% of their contacts traced or
  • both 87% of people with symptoms were found and 40% of their contacts traced

However at the moment, the test and trace system in England is understood to be falling well short of this.

In Wales on Saturday, one more death with Covid-19 was confirmed and 19 new cases identified.

A further 758 cases were confirmed across the UK on Saturday.

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