Bars and restaurants should stay shut until May, researchers suggest

Nina Massey and Jane Kirby, PA
·6 min read

Bars and restaurants should stay shut until May, researchers have suggested, as they warned that reopening society too quickly could have a “disastrous” effect.

A team of experts modelling the pandemic said that even if 90% of people are vaccinated against coronavirus, 10% would still be at risk of serious infection.

They argued that little is currently known about the effect of vaccines on transmission and if younger people catch coronavirus – they would be at risk of long Covid.

For these reasons the experts said they believed that restrictions should be lifted slowly, with various scenarios modelling what would happen if lockdowns lasted until the winter.

Releasing all measures at the end of April once all over-50s, those in high risk groups and frontline health and social workers are vaccinated, could still lead to a huge surge in cases, they said.

Dr Marc Baguelin, from Imperial College London, who sits on the Scientific Pandemic Influenza Group on Modelling (SPI-M), a sub-group of Sage, said the premature opening of the hospitality sector would lead to a “bump” in Covid-19 cases.

Speaking on BBC Radio 4’s World at One programme, he said: “We looked at the partial reopening and the increase in the R number – it will generate an increase in the R number – the extent of which we don’t know really.

“Something of this scale, if it was to happen earlier than May, would generate a bump in transmission, which is already really bad.

“So you have a lot of pressure on hospitals, you will have another wave of some extent.

“At best you will keep on having very, very unsustainable level of pressure on the NHS.”

Instead, modelling indicates that a more gradual relaxation of controls is far less risky, and could provide an exit without overwhelming the health service.

Mark Woolhouse, professor of infectious disease epidemiology at the University of Edinburgh, said: “Ninety percent coverage of any group, but we’re talking about the most vulnerable group, which is about 10 million people.

“That means one million people not vaccinated.

“And that is more people in that group than have already had the infection.

“So it’s clear, there is the potential for a bigger epidemic at some stage.”

He added: “The possibility, we can’t reach – not herd immunity, we’ll always have some herd immunity – but the herd immunity threshold can’t be reached, yes that’s a realistic possibility and the new variant makes that more likely.”

The University of Edinburgh study assumed 85% vaccine uptake, and delivery of two million doses a week following the vaccine priority groups.

A separate study from the University of Warwick also modelled possible scenarios, but did not make predictions.

Researchers say, that under the most optimistic assumptions about vaccine rollout, coverage and efficacy, it will be several months before the population immunity threshold is reached in the UK.

Daily confirmed cases of Covid-19 in the UK
(PA Graphics)

Matt Keeling, professor of populations and disease at the University of Warwick, said one scenario the model considered was the complete relaxation of all control measures in April when there has been three months of vaccination and 30 million doses.

He said: “Completely stopping all controls is disastrous, we get massive peaks of both daily deaths and hospital admissions.

Prof Keeling added that no one is suggesting relaxing all measures immediately would be a viable strategy, as cases would increase very rapidly, and as soon as that started to happen, control measures would be reinstated.

He explained: “But it just shows that even at that point, you can’t relax, even at 30 million doses.”

According to the study, under all scenarios, the full release of the entire population immediately after the top nine priority groups have been vaccinated would result in a major epidemic with a significant number of cases.

Delaying full release until all adults have been vaccinated results in much lower risk.

The study further suggests that in the short-term (12 months), the main barriers to releasing restrictions are slow vaccine rollout, low uptake of the vaccine, and low ability of vaccines to block transmission.

Prof Keeling said: “Under the most optimistic assumptions about vaccine rollout, coverage and efficacy, it will be several months, perhaps September, before the herd immunity threshold is reached.

“But with less optimistic, but perfectly reasonable assumptions, it is possible the herd immunity threshold will never be reached, that we can’t get to it.

“In that case, novel coronavirus will almost certainly become endemic.”

Prof Keeling said he was worried about any “early opening of any bars and restaurants or just reducing the controls”.

Covid-19 vaccinations in the UK
(PA Graphics)

He added: “At the moment we’re in an unsustainable position, and we can’t do anything until we’ve really got the numbers of cases down.

“We’ve got very early data on how well the lockdown seems to be doing and it’s doing surprisingly well.

“But I think, you know, until we’ve had another few weeks worth of data and really see how low the cases can be dropped … I think it’s too early to start talking about opening things up.”

Prof Woolhouse told the PA news agency: “A gradual relaxing of restrictions hopefully from about the time that the phase one rollout is finished, is much more likely to keep the pressure off the NHS than any wholesale relaxation.

“The ordering of what is relaxed really does come down to government, we can do our best to say how much of a difference to the R number of different kinds of relaxation will make.

“It’s very difficult if they’re very precise interventions, like opening pubs but only for takeaways.

“We don’t have the granularity, the models or the data to really tell us exactly how much that will increase to R, so it’s a judgement, and the ordering of it is down to the politicians I’m afraid.”

He added that there are “fundamental unknowns” about what the vaccine will do to disease infection and transmission.

It comes as Professor Anthony Harnden deputy chairman of the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation (JCVI) told BBC Radio 4’s World at One programme that the lockdown should continue until the late spring.

He said: “We don’t know that vaccines prevent transmission and we will need a large sector of the population immunised before we interrupt transmission.

“Therefore it’s really important that we stay very cautious, that we maintain social distancing and keep some sort of lockdown in certainly until the late spring period.

“Immunisation is the way out, but it’s not at the moment a quick fix and people ought to realise that once they’ve been immunised they are not 100% protected, and therefore they are not invincible.”

Elsewhere, England’s deputy chief medical officer has said he is delighted that his mother has “some protection against this deadly virus” after she had her Covid-19 vaccination.

Elizabeth Van Tam, 79, the mother of Jonathan Van-Tam, deputy chief medical officer for England, is vaccinated against coronavirus at the the Jenner Health Centre in Whittlesey, Cambridgeshire
Elizabeth Van Tam, 79, the mother of Jonathan Van-Tam, deputy chief medical officer for England, is vaccinated against coronavirus at the the Jenner Health Centre in Whittlesey, Cambridgeshire (Mike Egerton/PA)

Jonathan Van-Tam’s mother Elizabeth, who turned 79 this month, had her jab at a GP surgery in Whittlesey, six miles east of Peterborough, Cambridgeshire on Thursday.

It comes as Health Secretary Matt Hancock said the NHS is vaccinating people against Covid-19 at the rate of 200 jabs every minute.

He told MPs the UK has now given more than five million doses of coronavirus vaccines to 4.6 million people.