Travelling and socialising over Christmas could hinder the Covid-19 vaccination programme and will have a “big impact” on how long it takes for life to return to normal, the lead researcher behind the Oxford jab has warned.
Sarah Gilbert, professor of vaccinology at the University of Oxford, told the BBC’s Andrew Marr Show, things could be “more or less” back to normal by next summer but would depend on transmission rates in January.
“What we’ve seen in the US is that after Thanksgiving, when people were travelling and mixing, there’s now been a big surge in infections and they’re seeing 3,000 deaths a day now – the highest rate there’s ever been in any country,” Prof Gilbert said.
“If we have that kind of thing happening over the Christmas holidays in this country, with very high transmission rates then possible in January, it’s going to take so much longer to get things back to normal.
“Because partly, all the vaccination clinics will be disrupted. It’s not possible to run vaccination clinics when staff are off sick, and there’s a very high transmission rate affecting people’s ability to come to be vaccinated.
“So I think what we do over the next few weeks is really going to have a big impact on how long it’s going to take to get back to the normal.”
She added: “Hopefully we could be more or less back to normal by the summer, but that’s not going to be possible if we’re starting from a very bad position in January.”
It comes after NHS bosses warned Boris Johnson that any relaxation of restrictions in England’s tier system may trigger a third wave of the pandemic at the busiest time of the year for hospitals.
Meanwhile, in a letter to Boris Johnson, NHS Providers urged “extreme caution” in moving any area of the country to a lower tier, PA Media reports.
The first review of England’s tier allocation is due take place on Wednesday, two weeks after the three-tier system was brought in following the end of lockdown.
But areas should be moved into the highest tier of restrictions “as soon as this is needed, without any delay”, according to the letter from NHS Providers, which represents hospital trusts in England.
Chief executive Chris Hopson told the BBC: “We’re about to hit our busiest time of year so people are really worried that if we relax the restrictions now the NHS simply won’t be able to cope with all of the work that it needs to do in late December, January and February.”
While the letter did not call for a review of the temporary relaxation of measures over Christmas, NHS Providers said it was “vital” the public understands the risks of extra social contact during the festive period.
A government spokeswoman said ministers will not “hesitate to take necessary actions to protect local communities” and that decisions are made based on the latest available data.
“We have introduced strengthened local restrictions to protect the progress gained during national restrictions, reduce pressure on the NHS and ultimately save lives,” the spokeswoman said.
“On top of our record NHS investment, this winter we are providing an extra £3 billion to maintain independent sector and Nightingale hospital surge capacity and a further £450 million to upgrade and expand A&Es.”
On Saturday, the government said a further 519 people had died within 28 days of testing positive for Covid-19 in the UK, with a further 21,502 lab-confirmed cases of coronavirus.
Meanwhile, the Matt Hancock has indicated that towns and villages will not be able to move alert level by being “decoupled” from nearby coronavirus hotspots.
The health secretary said in a letter to Tory MPs that “narrow carve-outs” of lower prevalence areas often leads to them “catching up” or “overtaking” areas with higher levels, according to the Daily Telegraph.