How will the UK cope with COVID this winter?
Schools have also been told to prepare to vaccinate pupils aged 12 to 15, a group that hitherto haven't yet received an offer of vaccination, which is not the case in many other countries. So then what should our strategy be this winter? King's College epidemiologist and architect of the ZOE app that's been used to track the COVID pandemic in the UK, Tim Spector, spoke with Adam Murphy about whether there will be another lockdown this winter...
Tim - I don't see any lockdowns in the future, but I think we do have to look at what's been going on internationally and see that actually, despite all this optimism and the fact that we were so good at getting the vaccine out early, we're actually doing pretty badly on the European and international scene. And, I think to me, this is a worry that not only have we had the highest case in Europe for the last four months, but, deaths and hospitalisations are creeping up. And the current rate of deaths would put us over 40,000 a year, which we're sort of accepting as the price for having virtually no restrictions at all. Whereas most countries have a sort of halfway house. So there needs to be a change in our attitude to this. Also given the fact that these vaccines, as you said, are starting to wear off in not only, let's not forget, it's not just the old and the vulnerable, but also a lot of the healthcare staff. And that's going to take a large programme to get them back on track again.
Adam - So then what do you think is the best way forward given what we know about how the vaccine is performing?
Tim - I think first of all, we need to do as other countries have done when their rates went sky high, when kids went back to school, as we were seeing in Scotland, and I'm pretty sure we're going to see the same thing in the next week or two in England and Wales. We're already seeing it a bit in Wales. We really need to start thinking again about whether we should have thrown away all those masks and restrictions and take this much more seriously and do the simple things that we can all do to keep it under control and not have major rock festivals where 10% of people at them get infected and then go back and spread it around. We've sort of gone from the most restricted country in Europe to the most laissez faire apart from our totally out-of-context travel restrictions, which make no sense and hospitals are going to be under strain.
Tim - There's no doubt that coping with this many hospitalisations as we go into winter with other viruses on a really stressed NHS is not a great position to be in. So I think we should be prioritising boosters for the elderly, the vulnerable and the healthcare staff. And if we have spare capacity, then look at kids. But at the moment, I think it's going to be far too late for most of the kids who are going to be infected in probably in the next month before they've had any chance to have a vaccine. But these are not easy decisions as Peter has been saying. I think that it's a changing position that perhaps changes every week. But what we need to do is look much more at our international performance and see why we're doing so badly.
Adam - What about longer term, you know, monitoring, tracking, what should we be doing there?
Tim - Well, we need to keep our eyes on domestically. We should give up our ridiculous travel policy, which makes absolutely no sense when we've got the worst rates in Europe. And it's really telling people what the real symptoms are at the moment. People are completely ignorant that the real symptoms of most people getting COVID now are bad cold, flu-like symptoms, and that's contributing to the extra cases the UK is having compared to other countries. So I think it's all about much more, better information and telling the people what's really going on.