Britons may have to spend half of the next year socially distancing themselves by staying away from pubs, restaurants, gyms and other public places to tackle coronavirus, government scientific advice suggests.
The current combination of measures to tackle the outbreak, including social distancing, school closures, household isolation and stringent advice for vulnerable groups, is “likely to control the epidemic when kept in place for a long period”.
It could help the NHS deal with the number of critical cases within its capacity without being overwhelmed, the advice to the government’s scientific advisory group for emergencies (SAGE) was told.
The advice concludes that more restrictive social distancing measures including asking people to stay away from public places and school closures will need to be in place for “at least half of the year”.
Less restrictive measure such as isolating cases and households may need to be in place for “most of the next year”.
This is because lifting restrictions could risk a surge in the epidemic, so different measures may need to be turned on and off at different times depending on the scale of the outbreak.
“It was agreed that a policy of alternating between periods of more and less strict social distancing measures could plausibly be effective at keeping the number of critical care cases within capacity,” scientists on SAGE’s scientific pandemic influenza group on modelling concluded on March 16.
“These would need to be in place for at least most of a year.
“Under such a policy, at least half of the year would be spent under the stricter social distancing measures.”
Different nations and regions in the UK could also have different measures at different times depending on how severe the outbreak was in that area, while it will take two to three weeks before intensive care units start to feel the benefits.
It comes amid fresh reports that the government could order the closure of places like pubs and gyms in London, where the epidemic is at its worst.
The government published the advice after Boris Johnson insisted the country can “turn the tide within the next 12 weeks” and “send coronavirus packing”.
“The collective evidence we have published today has played a considerable role in shaping our recommendations on when, how and why the government has made the interventions it has so far”
The scientific advice modelled the impact of different measures. It said:
- Closing schools will delay the peak of the epidemic by three weeks at best, while reducing the size of the peak by 10-30% for eight weeks of closure.
- Home isolation for a week for people with coronavirus-like cases would delay the peak by two to three weeks, while reducing it by 20% if the policy was put in place for 13 weeks. Household isolation would have a similar impact
- Social distancing would have a larger impact than the other three measures, delaying the peak by three to five weeks and reducing it substantially by up to 50-60%, again if applied for 13 weeks.
Separate advice to SAGE from behavioural scientists concluded that large-scale rioting was “unlikely and rarely seen in these circumstances”, while instead “acts of altruism” were more likely to dominate.
The government was advised to reduce the risk of public disorder even further by providing “clear and transparent reasons for the different strategies that might be taken; set[ting] clear expectations on how the national response would develop; and promot[ing] collective action throughout the country.”
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Government chief scientific adviser Sir Patrick Vallance said: “This is an incredibly fast-moving, developing situation and as part of our collective efforts to give the clearest and most reliable scientific advice, SAGE has and continues to draw upon a huge range of experts and a huge range of evidence.
“The UK is home to experts who are at the forefront of their chosen fields and we are making full use of their expertise to grow our understanding of Covid-19 as we work tirelessly to tackle this disease.
“The collective evidence we have published today has played a considerable role in shaping our recommendations on when, how and why the government has made the interventions it has so far.”