The UK must increase its vaccinations to 2 million doses per week – a tenfold jump – and keep up a national Tier 4 lockdown if it is to curtail a spike in Covid-19 driven by a highly infectious strain, a new study has warned.
Conducted by the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine (LSHTM) and delivered to the UK’s official SAGE [The Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies] advisory group late last week, the research notes that with a new coronavirus strain found to be “56% more transmissible” than other known variants, the country faces a significant “wave” of infections, hospitalizations and deaths short of continued restrictions and a vast ramping-up of its vaccine program.
“We found that regardless of control measures simulated, all NHS regions are projected to experience a subsequent wave of Covid-19 cases and deaths, peaking in spring 2021 for London, South East and East of England, and in summer 2021 for the rest of England,” according to the study, which was based on mathematical modeling.
We project that large resurgences of the virus are likely to occur following easing of control measures. It may be necessary to greatly accelerate vaccine roll-out to have an appreciable impact in suppressing the resulting disease burden.
The UK’s vaccination program currently doles out 200,000 doses each week, around 10 times less than what the study argued would be needed to halt a major uptick in the outbreak.
While the researchers noted they could not find “clear evidence” that the new strain results in more severe symptoms, its greater transmissibility “is likely to lead to a large increase” in Covid-19 hospitalizations and deaths, even with the restrictions that were in place before December 19. Only an “England-wide” Tier 4 lockdown – currently the highest level on the country’s multi-level framework – coupled with a rapid increase in vaccinations can reduce the “peak ICU burden” to numbers below those seen in 2020.
“Our estimates suggest that control measures of a similar stringency to the national lockdown implemented in England in November 2020 are unlikely to reduce the effective reproduction number… unless primary schools, secondary schools, and universities are also closed,” the study went on, referring to the rate at which the coronavirus spreads.
However, even with the recommended 2 million vaccinations per week and a national Tier 4 lockdown, the researchers’ models estimated 35,700 additional deaths in the UK between now and the end of June. Short of the tenfold boost to inoculations and tightened restrictions, that projection soared to 118,000 deaths.
UK health officials’ repeated warnings about the new mutant strain have helped drive fears of another long-term lockdown in the country, including rumors of even harsher ‘Tier 5’ restrictions. The concerns prompted a pre-Christmas exodus from London and elsewhere as thousands of citizens sought to flee a new round of measures imposed in some areas over the holidays.
Prime Minister Boris Johnson said the temporary restrictions will be reviewed on Wednesday, but in light of the new strain and the recommendations from the LSHTM, it is unclear whether health officials will be ready to scale back the containment measures, which remain in force at Tier 4 across London and much of South East England. While the rest of the country has been placed on Tiers 2 and 3, denoting “high” and “very high” risk on the four-level system, “millions” more could be moved into Tier 4 after this week’s review, according to Whitehall sources cited by the Telegraph.