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Data on the number of Covid-19 cases is now so encouraging that outdoor sports for children and small numbers of adults should be allowed immediately as part of an accelerated easing of the lockdown, a leading scientist and adviser to government has told the Observer.
With the prime minister expected to take a cautious approach to lifting restrictions in a statement to the House of Commons on Monday, Prof Mark Woolhouse of Edinburgh University, whose work feeds into the Sage committee’s sub-group Spi-M, said the data showed there was no need for the government to be “ultra-cautious”.
“The government has said the country’s exit from lockdown should be data-driven. Well, the data is extremely good, far better than anyone, including me, anticipated two or three weeks ago,” said Woolhouse. “Hospitalisations, deaths, and case numbers have all plunged while vaccinations have already reached a quarter of the adult population.
“The corollary is that if we plan to ease lockdown in a data-driven way, we should right now be looking at starting the process of coming out of lockdown earlier than we were thinking about two or three weeks ago. The data drive has to go both ways.”
His comments came as the prime minister prepared to announce a new target to give all adults a first dose of the vaccine by the end of July. Plans to offer a first dose to all adults over 50 will also be brought forward two weeks to 15 April.
Woolhouse also pointed out that the proportion of Covid infections occurring outside is extremely low. “Studies suggest that one in 100 is a high figure. Others suggest it is more like one in 1,000 or one in 10,000,” he added.
“This virus very rarely transmits outdoors. So, quite honestly, outdoor activities that don’t involve close physical contact could be adopted now. That is not an argument to say we can have crowds back at football matches. But sports involving small numbers of players or sports for children: they could start perfectly safely today.”
In a statement to parliament on Monday Johnson is expected to confirm that schools will reopen from 8 March, and that some family outdoor gathering will be allowed before Easter. On Saturday, the health secretary, Matt Hancock, announced that care home residents in England would be able to receive indoor visits from 8 March, including allowing the holding of hands.
But overall the emphasis from the prime minister over the coming days is expected to be on accelerating the vaccination programme, rather than any “big bang” lifting of lockdown.
Johnson said in a statement on Saturday: “Hitting 15 million vaccinations was a significant milestone – but there will be no let-up, and I want to see the rollout go further and faster in the coming weeks.
“We will now aim to offer a jab to every adult by the end of July, helping us protect the most vulnerable sooner, and take further steps to ease some of the restrictions in place.”
Tory MPs and ministers remain divided on how fast the lockdown can and should be lifted, with the more cautious fearing a repeat of what happened last year when easing rules too fast led to restrictions being reimposed.
However, a large number of Conservatives on the party’s libertarian wing want the prime minister to end the lockdown now to save jobs and the economy, as well as to prevent an educational and mental health crisis for young people including students.
Graham Brady, chairman of the 1922 Committee of Conservative backbenchers, said it would be “reckless” to maintain anything like the current level of restrictions.
“Tardiness in releasing restrictions might be portrayed by some as caution but it is also acting recklessly with the lives of many others. In particular children and young people whose educational and social development has been damaged so much and who are suffering a dreadful epidemic of mental health problems that may be with us for many years into the future.”
Woolhouse added that issues such as ensuring safe transport to parks and grounds and changing facilities would have to be borne in mind if rules on outdoor sports were to be eased. “But if you ask what should the government be considering, then measures to allow us to have outdoor activities should be right at the top of the list.”
He said there was good evidence that relatively little transmission of the virus occurred in primary schools. “So I am also very comfortable with opening primary schools. I do think the government doesn’t have to be ultra-cautious,” he added. “I am not saying ‘let everything go’ but thinking about letting people do things that have low risks which just makes everyone’s lives more tolerable.”
Other scientists urged caution. The epidemiologist Anne Johnson, of University College London, said: “Although all the indicators are in the right direction, it is still too soon to unlock – if we open up too quickly there is a danger we could set off another big wave of infections. However, we can see the green shoots of spring beginning to show.”
NHS England said that more than two-thirds of people aged between 65 and 69 had had their first dose of the vaccine just a week after invitations went out. Around 460,000 people aged 64 will now be called forward to receive their jab, as the health service urged people aged over 65 to respond to their vaccine letter if they had not already done so.
Some parts of England had already begun vaccinating the over-65s before the invitations were sent out, after they reached everyone in the top four priority groups who wanted a jab.
Paul Whiteman, general secretary of school leaders’ union the NAHT, said school staff should now be prioritised. “With the vaccination programme progressing rapidly and the most vulnerable looking set to be protected very soon, we would like to see all school staff prioritised for vaccination as we enter the next phase.
“This would not just help protect those staff at work, as they are forced to take greater risks than those able to stay at home; it would also mean a more sustainable return to school for children in the longer term, with less disruption to education caused by absence and illness.”
The official government death toll rose by 445 on Saturday, bringing the UK total to 120,365.
Source: The Guardian
Keyword: Ban on outside sport can end, top scientist urges Johnson | Coronavirus