A leading epidemiologist has warned a potential third national lockdown after Christmas may have to be even tougher than the most recent one if the spread of coronavirus is to be brought back under control.
Professor Neil Ferguson, whose advice to the prime minister led to the initial lockdown in March, told the BBC’s World At One programme: “In the East of England, case numbers were rising during the last lockdown, so there may be the need for additional controls even beyond those in place then.”
Professor Ferguson said that current case numbers were “disturbing” but added: “I’m more concerned with what we are going to be facing in early January rather than Christmas itself.
“We are facing rapid increases in case numbers over time.”
Professor Ferguson added that while transmission may actually drop over the festive period, in January when schools reopen and people return to work, infection rates could again soar.
He said: “We are entering the worst time of the year for transmission of respiratory viruses.
“In local areas hospitals are already at their limits. We wouldn’t be ableto allow case numbers to rise much further.”
And when questioned about whether a suspected new variant of COVID-19 could be the cause of the recent rise in infections, he said: “We do not know definitively if it is more transmissable but that is the concern right now, and will make control more difficult if it turns out to be the case.”
On Friday, Boris Johnson refused to rule out the possibility of a third nationwide lockdown as case numbers spiked in London and continued to increase across England.
The latest Office for National Statistics (ONS) infection survey, released on Friday, estimated there were 567,300 people in England with COVID-19 between 6 and 12 December.
This is up 85,800 – 17.8% – from 481,500 infections between 29 November and 5 December. The national lockdown ended on 2 December when the three-tier system was reintroduced
Professor Ferguson said that the knock-on effect of Christmas could decide whether a third national lockdown was required, but said that it would not be a decision for scientists to make.
He said: “Whether we need to move to national measures will end up being a decision for the government, not scientists.”
“Where we will be in January is almost impossible to predict right now,” he concluded.
During the first lockdown, people were only allowed to leave their homes to shop for basic necessities if essential.
One form of exercise a day was allowed alone or with members of the same household, and people were told to leave the house for work only when absolutely necessary and the job could not be done from home.
All shops selling non-essential goods, including clothing and electronic stores, were closed. Libraries, playgrounds, outdoor gyms and places of worship also shut as well as hotels, hostels, bed and breakfasts, campsites and caravan parks.
Gatherings with more than two people, excluding people in the same household, were not allowed, including weddings, baptisms, birthday parties and other ceremonies.
Only immediate family were able to attend funerals.
Editor’s note: This article was updated on 18 December. We initially reported that Professor Ferguson was comparing a potential post-Christmas lockdown to the one in March, rather than the most recent one in November..