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'People will die' without social distancing over Christmas, former Sage expert warns

George Martin
·3-min read
Commuters wear face-masks during morning rush hour on the Victoria Line of the London Underground in central London on October 16, 2020, as the number of novel coronavirus COVID-19 cases. - Roughly half of England is now under tougher coronavirus restrictions, after the government on Thursday announced more stringent measures for London and seven other areas to try to cut surging numbers of cases. (Photo by Tolga Akmen / AFP) (Photo by TOLGA AKMEN/AFP via Getty Images)
Commuters wear face-masks in London. (Getty)

A former government advisor has warned that “people will die” if social distancing measures are not reimposed over the Christmas period.

Professor Neil Ferguson, a former member of the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage), said the government would have to weigh up the “cost versus the benefits” in the coming weeks.

Speaking on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme, he said: “It risks some transmission and there will be consequences of that. Some people will die because of getting infected on that day.

“But if it is only one or two days the impact is likely to be limited. So that is really a political judgement about the cost versus the benefits.”

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson leaves 10 Downing Street wearing a face mask on his way to Prime Minister's Questions (PMQs) at the House of Commons in London, England, on October 14, 2020. (Photo by David Cliff/NurPhoto via Getty Images)
Prime minister Boris Johnson previously said he hopes Christmas can be celebrated as normal. (Getty)

Ferguson added that the current infection rate was “probably unsustainable” and said more stricter controls were needed to get the number of cases down.

“There are little hints of slowing, for instance in the north-east of England, but we are not seeing the sort of slowing that we really need to get on top of this,” he continued.

“If the rate of growth continues as it is, it means that in a month’s time we will be above that peak level in March and that is probably unsustainable. We are in a critical time right now.”

Read more: UK to carry out a million COVID tests a day by Christmas, scientists predict

He said that schools may be forced to shut if the infection rate remains at the current level.

Ferguson added: “[Banning households mixing] should have a significant effect, but as yet we have been unable to see it definitively.

“If we go beyond that there is a limit to what we can do in terms of reducing contacts, short of starting to target, for instance, the older years in schools and sixth form colleges where we know older teenagers are able to transmit as adults.

Watch: Expert believes vaccine unlikely to be ready before Christmas

“Of course nobody wants to start moving to virtual education and closing schools even partially. The challenge may be that we are not able to get on top of the transmission otherwise.”

It comes as Professor John Edmunds, also a SAGE advisor, said “radical action” would be needed to stem the rise in coronavirus cases, particularly in regions with high incidence of the virus.

“The only way that we can have a relatively safe and normal Christmas is if we take radical action now to reduce incidence – at the very least in high incidence areas – and keep the incidence low across the country by implementing a package of measures to reduce social contacts,” he said.

“The notion that we can carry on as we are and have a Christmas that we can celebrate normally with friends and family is wishful thinking in the extreme.”

Edmunds told MPs the UK would see “peaks around Christmas, in the new year, of very severe numbers of cases throughout the UK”.

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