COVID-19: UK should prepare for ‘difficult autumn’, warns Public Health England official

The UK should prepare for a “difficult autumn” due to the threat of new coronavirus variants emerging and a potential surge in other respiratory viruses, a senior health official has warned.

Dr Susan Hopkins, Public Health England’s strategic response director for COVID-19, said the population may have less immunity to respiratory viruses such as flu due to the coronavirus pandemic.

She told the BBC’s Andrew Marr Show that it was “highly unlikely” that a new COVID variant would derail the plan to start easing England’s lockdown “for the next three to five weeks”.

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But Dr Hopkins added: “We’ll need to monitor carefully as new strains come into the country from around the world.

“We’ll need to be very ready for an autumn that could be challenging as these variants are there.

“We’re working very closely with vaccine manufacturers to see what they could do to develop new vaccines.

“But we’re also very conscious of the fact that what happened last summer, in late summer and early September, could happen again and we need to prepare for that and hope that it doesn’t happen.”

Dr Hopkins said it was “really difficult to predict what’s going to happen in the future” but “we have to prepare for a hard winter”.

“Six months away is a long time,” she told Marr.

“We have to prepare for a hard winter – not only with coronavirus, but we’ve had a year of almost no respiratory viruses of any other type.

“That means potentially the population immunity to that is less.

“So we could see surges in flu, we could see surges in other respiratory viruses and other respiratory pathogens.

“It’s really important that we’re prepared from the NHS point of view, from public health and contact tracing, that we have everything ready to prepare for a difficult autumn.

“We hope that it won’t occur and it will be a normal winter for all of us.”

Dr Hopkins said she believed “we will all have our summer holidays” but her job is to prepare for “worst case scenarios”.

She added: “We have to make sure that we’re prepared, and that we’re better prepared for this autumn than we have been previously.”

The spread of the more transmissible variant of COVID-19 first identified in Kent in September prompted the government to impose a third national lockdown in England in January.

However the scientist in charge of tracking strains of coronavirus in the UK has said new variants are “very unlikely to send us back to square one” as restrictions are lifted in the run-up to summer.

Professor Sharon Peacock, head of the COVID-19 Genomics UK scientific body, said the country was well equipped to “stay ahead” by adapting vaccines quickly.

She told The Times: “I’m very optimistic that the vaccines will be rolled out, that they’ll be effective, and that we’ll be in a better place by the summer and autumn.

“I think we’ve got the capabilities to stay ahead by adapting vaccines, and so I’m an optimist.”

Schools in England will reopen to all pupils on Monday in the first stage of the prime minister’s lockdown lifting, with most restrictions set to be gone by June 21.

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