Boris Johnson Adviser Talks Up England Lockdown Impact on Virus Surge

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Boris Johnson’s top medical adviser said England’s looming four-week coronavirus lockdown offers a “realistic possibility” of looser social-distancing restrictions in December -- if people obey the rules.

Speaking ahead of a key vote in Parliament on Wednesday, Chief Medical Officer Chris Whitty told lawmakers the partial lockdown starting this week could “pull us back in time” and bring the reproduction rate below the key threshold where the virus spreads exponentially.

Boris Johnson Adviser Talks Up England Lockdown Impact on Virus Surge

Achieving that would “make a huge difference,” Whitty said during a House of Commons science committee evidence session on Tuesday. But he warned England will still face some form of restrictions throughout the winter to keep the virus under control. “It’s a long haul,” he said.

Johnson spent weeks resisting a second national lockdown even as the opposition Labour Party and his own scientific advisers called for one to contain a dramatic surge in the virus that exceeded even the government’s own worst-case scenario. Faced with projections showing the National Health Service could be overwhelmed within weeks and the possibility of more than twice as many deaths as in the spring, he finally reversed course on Saturday.

Tory Divisions

But the prime minister now has significant political capital tied up in the lockdown working, and also ensuring that an expected Conservative rebellion when the plan is put to a vote in Parliament on Wednesday doesn’t get out of hand. The rebels are demanding proof of Johnson has an exit strategy, amid fears the curbs will be extended if the infection rate has not dropped sufficiently.

Whitty at first avoided a direct answer when asked if the lockdown would be lifted on Dec. 2 as planned, saying only that “the prime minister has stated that that is what he intends to do.”

Pressed on the matter, though, he said the virus will be in retreat “in the great majority or all of the country” if people behave as he expects in the lockdown. “The aim of this is to get the rates down far enough that it’s a realistic possibility to move into a different state of play at that point in time,” he said.

If approved by Parliament, the partial lockdown will come into effect on Thursday, forcing pubs, restaurants and non-essential shops to close, and imposing severe restrictions on socializing between households. Schools will remain open, unlike the first lockdown in March

Johnson had wanted to deal with the expected winter surge in the coronavirus with a “whack-a-mole” approach of action in hot spots, rolling out three levels of restrictions according to the severity of the outbreak. That was despite calls for a nationwide lockdown from his own panel of scientific experts in September.

Critics of the new curbs have questioned the projections behind the decision, specifically one warning there could be 4,000 deaths per day without intervention, which was used by a Johnson in a televised presentation on Saturday.

The government published the modeling on Tuesday and, while one model projected deaths peaking at 4,000 a day just before Christmas without any extra restrictions to halt the spread of Covid, a graph of consensus projections showed daily deaths in England at lower than 1,000 in December.

But Whitty said even the lower number “would imply significant pressure” on other parts of the health service, and warned that matching the spring peak of about 1,000 deaths per day “is entirely realistic” without the government taking action.

©2020 Bloomberg L.P.

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