UK needs lockdown exit strategy, says key coronavirus adviser | World news

Downing Street needs to accelerate planning for exiting the coronavirus lockdown because contact tracing, testing and social distancing will be needed “indefinitely” until a vaccine is discovered, Prof Neil Ferguson, one of the leading epidemiologists advising the government, has said.

Ferguson, whose team at Imperial College provided the modelling that led to the lockdown, said the data showed it looked like infections are coming down but life will not get back to normal quickly even when the lockdown is eased.

As ministers prepare to extend the lockdown for three weeks, attention is turning to what happens after that, when it might be possible to ease restrictions.

Matt Hancock, the health secretary, expressed extreme frustration about being asked to explain the government’s exit strategy in broadcast interviews on Wednesday, saying: “Everybody wants to know what the future looks like. The question is how do we best get through the crisis and how do we get the numbers down,” Hancock said.

“The thing is this: how we communicate as government, as ministers, has a direct impact on the cases we have and the people who die. Because clarity of messaging that people need to stay at home … that saves lives. This core messaging has a direct impact on how many people follow the guidelines … The scientists can say what they like, the commentators can say what they like, but we will do our best by dealing with this virus.”

He said Ferguson “advises government, he is not in the government”.

But Ferguson said he would like to see the government move faster to put a plan in place for what happens when measures are partially lifted, saying he did not see the same level of planning going on that was put into Brexit.

Ferguson told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme: “There’s a lot of discussion. I would like to see action accelerated. I don’t have a deep insight about what’s going on in government, but decisions need to be accelerated.

“We need to put in place an infrastructure, a command and control structure, a novel organisation.

“I’m reminded we had a department for Brexit for government. That was a major national emergency and we are faced with something even larger than Brexit.

“And yet I don’t quite see the evidence for that level of organisation. I’d like to see measures accelerated.”

The Guardian reported on Wednesday that there is no central plan for exiting the lockdown yet, even though ministers are floating lots of ideas about which parts of the population might see restrictions lifted first – from younger people to the immune or different sectors of the economy.

Ferguson said it was necessary to ease restrictions at the right time but said: “We will have to retain some level of social distancing indefinitely until we have a vaccine available.”

The expert suggested there now needed to be a “single-minded emphasis on scaling up testing and contact tracing”.

He argued that a huge infrastructure of testing and contact tracing would need to be in place in order for the lockdown to be lifted without further peaks, pointing to the model of South Korea, which has been suppressing new outbreaks.

“Without that, our estimates show we have relatively little leeway. If we relax measures too much then we will see a resurgence in transmission,” he said.

Ferguson’s remarks suggest he believes the UK should return to a strategy of containment, which was abandoned by No 10 and its chief scientific and medical advisers early in the epidemic, to the concern of public health experts. Jeremy Hunt, the former health secretary, is one of those who has been arguing for weeks that mass community testing and tracing is necessary, while the government was at that point insisting that a test for antibodies to prove immunity was the most important strategy. Since then, antibody tests have been proving hard to develop with any accuracy.

Ministers have been trying to ramp up testing since early March, with a target of 25,000 daily by mid-April and 100,000 daily by the end of the month. Hancock denied the existence of the 25,000 target on Wednesday but then claimed on Thursday that the government has now reached capacity to do 25,000 tests a day with the help of new drive-through centres for NHS workers.

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