'No good alternative' to further restrictions, says former chief scientific advisor

18 October 2020, 20:55

Sir Mark Walport spoke to Ruth Davidson
Sir Mark Walport warned “we can already see hospital beds filling up". Picture: Getty

By Joe Cook

Former Chief Scientific Advisor Sir Mark Walport has said there is currently “no good alternative” to further coronavirus restrictions, as cases surge across the UK.

Sir Patrick Vallance’s predecessor told LBC’s An Inconvenient Ruth “there is no guarantee that we will get a vaccine” and so we cannot “work on the basis of having very tight lockdowns and then just releasing things back to normal”.

Speaking to Ruth Davidson, Sir Mark said: "It is clear from the fact that the numbers are going up, even in some of the places where there has been some degree of tougher rules, means that the case has got to be to go further.

“There is no good alternative to that because the numbers are back where they were at the start of the full blown pandemic in the middle of March, just before lockdown on the 23rd.

“If we leave things as they are, we can already see hospital beds filling up,” he warned.

The former top advisor continued: "At the end of the day what we have to do is get the numbers down to a manageable number, as low as possible, and then throw all the tools of public health management at it.

“That does involve, critically, being able to identify new cases as far as possible as they arise, do proper contact tracing, provide adequate quarantine.

"Clarity of communication and social buy-in are so important because people have to understand if we are to control this we have to reduce our social contacts."

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Sir Mark, who was chief scientific advisor from 2013 to 2017 and planned the government’s pandemic preparedness exercise Cygnus in 2016, refused to be drawn on whether recommendations were followed.

However, he told Ruth there “are some interesting questions to ask” about whether departments “put in place the logistics that follow from exercises that are carried out”.

In a blow to those who are hoping for a vaccine by Christmas, Sir Mark said: "It is unlikely that anything will be available this calendar year and it may be some time into the next calendar year.”

“To be completely honest there is no guarantee that we will get a vaccine.

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He added, this “takes us to another really important issue about the management, which is that the countries that are doing well are effectively learning how to live with this virus and that does come down to very, very good control measures to identify outbreaks when they happen.

“We can't work on the basis of having very tight lockdowns and then just releasing things back to normal, which in fact wasn't the strategy.

“We have got to learn to live with it while working on... of course it is not only vaccines that are happening, we are looking at therapeutics as well."

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But Sir Mark emphasised that learning to live with the virus was not the same as advocating for herd immunity, describing it a "lethal strategy" which "would cause many deaths".

"The idea that you can isolate elderly populations from young is a myth. If you look at what is happening at the moment, whilst the rate is going up very dramatically in people aged about 16 and 17 and 24, it is now starting to go up very rapidly among people aged over 65."

"Herd immunity is not a safe or sensible strategy and that is something that the vast majority of the scientific community are completely agreed upon."