As the UK Government announces an end to all remaining COVID-19 restrictions, a leading Imperial expert has warned the pandemic is not over.
Speaking to BBC’s Newsnight on Monday (21 February), Professor Peter Openshaw responded to the Government’s newly announced ‘Living with COVID’ plan, which sets out an end to all remaining legal restrictions in England, including self-isolation, access to free testing, and wearing of face coverings.
When asked if the lifting of restrictions signalled the end of the pandemic, Professor Openshaw said: “No, it's certainly not over… I think none of us like these restrictions, myself included, and I'm not a great fan of legally enforced restrictions. I think people need to know what it is they can do to protect themselves and protect others... What's most important is that [people] don't get the message that it's over and we can all throw away our masks and start behaving as if COVID doesn't exist.”
In an interview which probed both the timing and scope of the Government’s plans, the Professor for Experimental Medicine within Imperial’s National Heart & Lung Institute highlighted the need for continued caution, saying that personal measures may still be appropriate for higher risk settings.
“I think we need to be very careful…we've still got something like 3 million people infected in this country. [There’s] a fair chance if you're out on public transport or in a crowded, stuffy area that there will be people close to you who are infected and who potentially might be transmitting the virus to you,” cautioned Professor Openshaw.
He added: “All of us know what we could do to reduce transmission, which is wear a mask and keep your distance and not breathe stuffy air that's being exhaled by others.”
While restrictions may be set to ease, continuing to monitor for new variants of SARS-CoV-2 remains “absolutely vital”, said Professor Openshaw. He explained the UK must retain its early warning systems through the Office for National Statistics as well as nationwide studies like SIREN and the Imperial-led REACT.
“These are big surveillance studies, which are relatively cheap to run actually, but which tell us how much virus there is out there, where it is, and which strains. These are the ways in which we can get early warning of new variants,” he said.
Challenging the popular view that viruses inherently become less lethal over time, he said it was “not a safe bet” this will be the case for future variants of SARS-CoV-2.
“We are pretty confident that there will be new variants, and there's no guarantee that they're going to be as mild as Omicron,” he told Newsnight. “I’m afraid it’s not a safe bet…The virus has been driven by transmissibility …it’s not driven by becoming more mild or less lethal.”
But Professor Openshaw also sounded a positive note on the scientific achievements of the pandemic, praising the NHS and the body of clinical research which will benefit patients.
“I think it's been remarkable actually to see vaccines being produced and rolled out at scale, where we didn't really think that vaccines were necessarily going to be produced in time. That's been a remarkable thing to watch that happen,” he said.
“I think the other thing which we can be really proud about is that we've done wonderful trials very fast within the NHS, that have led the way in terms of what we can use to treat the people who are infected – with steroids and with the immune modulators and now with the antivirals which are coming on stream. All of this is quite revolutionary and will change the way in which we treat not only COVID-19 but also other viral diseases in the future.”
Watch the full BBC Newsnight interview on BBC iPlayer (From 36m 33s)
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