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COVID restrictions need to be ready for ‘rapid deployment’, SAGE experts say

Preparations for the reintroduction of coronavirus restrictions should be undertaken now so that measures “can be ready for rapid deployment if required”, SAGE experts say.

The Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (SAGE) also predicted it was “increasingly unlikely” COVID hospital admissions this winter will rise above the peak seen last January.

However, it warned about the risk of a “rapid increase in hospital admissions” if people’s behaviour quickly returned to normal and there was a significant waning in the effectiveness of COVID-19 vaccines.

In the face of increasing coronavirus rates early intervention “would reduce the need for more stringent, disruptive, and longer-lasting measures”, the advisers concluded according to minutes published on Friday.

The reintroduction of working from home guidance was also likely to have the single greatest impact on transmission out of the proposed measures, they said.

The group’s meeting on 14 October informed the government’s thinking as Prime Minister Boris Johnson resisted calls to impose “Plan B” to control the spread of COVID-19 this autumn and winter, which includes compulsory mask wearing.

Led by chief scientific adviser Sir Patrick Vallance, the committee said: “SAGE advises that policy work on the potential reintroduction of measures should be undertaken now so that it can be ready for rapid deployment if required, stressing the importance of reintroducing measures in combination, supported by clear communication; consistent implementation that avoids creating barriers to adherence; and clear triggers for deployment.”

SAGE said its modelling did not take account of the impact from flu and other viruses or the emergence of new variants.

The minutes said: “Although there remains uncertainty about the timing and magnitude of any future resurgence, these scenarios suggest hospital admissions above those seen in January 2021 are increasingly unlikely, particularly in 2021.”

The scenarios also assumed the rollout of boosters will be “rapid” and have a “high uptake” and warned that if people swiftly change their behaviour then there could be serious problems.

They wrote: “A slower return to pre-pandemic behaviours and reduced waning are both expected to reduce and delay any further wave, although there remains potential for a rapid increase in hospital admissions if behaviours change quickly, and if waning is more significant and occurs after boosting.”

The advisers said there had been a “decrease in self-reported precautionary behaviours such as wearing a face covering”.

Meanwhile, responding to demands to introduce Plan B and tougher restrictions, Foreign Secretary Liz Truss told reporters: “Well what the difference is this year versus last year is, because we have had the vaccine, the rates of hospitalisation and deaths are much, much lower than they were last year.

“So it is right that we continue to keep things under review, but of course it is important that people are able to make their own decisions given that we have seen a dramatic drop in the rates of hospitalisation.”

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