SAGE advisers are calling for the two-metre social distancing rule to be brought back and for people to wear face masks all the time when in public.
The Government’s top scientists said the current restrictions need to be toughened up if they are to stand a chance of stopping the new coronavirus variant.
The variant is thought to be around 50 per cent more infectious and even a lockdown like the one imposed on the whole UK in March may be unable to stop it, they warn.
Grim predictions suggest the new strain of the virus means Britain must stay in lockdown continuously until at least the spring and potentially even summer 2021 as the NHS scrambles to vaccinate enough people to stem the flow of deaths and hospital admissions.
Another 964 people deaths were announced by the Department of Health today, with another 55,892 positive tests confirmed.
The two-metre rule was abandoned by the Government in the summer when Prime Minister Boris Johnson reduced it to ‘one metre plus’ when he encouraged people to wear masks, put up screens or face away from one another if they couldn’t keep 2m (6’7″) apart.
A SAGE sub-group named SPI-B said in a meeting on December 22 that face coverings should now be worn on high streets, in schools and workplaces.
SAGE advisers have said it should be mandatory for people to wear face coverings outdoors when they’re in busy places, as it is for supermarkets and public transport (Pictured: Members of the public on a street in London in October)
The report, produced by the SPI-B SAGE sub-group, which focuses on people’s behaviour and how it affects the spread of the virus, was published today.
It said: ‘As a consequence of the uncertainty around the mechanisms for increased transmission, enhanced mitigation measures are likely to be necessary including: reconsidering the 2m rule and requiring that where regular interactions less than 2m are necessary this should include correctly worn face coverings; enhancing ventilation rates to account for possible higher viral loads; and reinforcing the importance of using face coverings, including in settings where they are not currently mandated, such as education, workplaces, and crowded outdoor spaces.’
Experts are still not sure how much faster the new variant is able to spread but the consensus is that it’s more infectious than its predecessor.
This means that it is harder to control the spread of the virus because rules must be more strictly obeyed.
Social distancing rules changed at the end of June when the two-metre rule was cut to ‘one metre plus’.
Where people had previously been advised to stay at least two metres apart at all times, they were now told it should be two metres if possible, or if they had to be closer together they could rely on other measures like screens and masks.
The rule change was brought in to help cafes, pubs and restaurants that had been battered by the March lockdown, allowing them to fit more customers in.
It came a month before Rishi Sunak’s ‘Eat Out to Help Out’ scheme in August, which scientists have since claimed contributed to the second wave of coronavirus.
In June the Department of Health said: ‘The absolute risk of transmission between people is reduced as the prevalence of COVID-19 infection in the population declines.
‘The evidence shows that relative risk may be 2-10 times higher at 1 metres than 2 metres without mitigations, and the potential for higher occupancy at 1 metre distancing will also affect risk.
‘However, mitigations can reduce the risk at 1m, so that it is broadly equivalent to being 2m apart, noting that a precise and quantitative assessment of how much risk is reduced by mitigations is not possible.’
As well as increasing social distancing back to the maximum 2m (6’7″), the SPI-B group said face coverings should be worn indoors and in busy streets.
Currently, people are only required to wear face masks while on public transport or indoors in a shop or other public place.
SPI-B suggested this rule should be expanded to include schools and workplaces, as well as busy streets even where people are outdoors.
The advisers said: ‘It is possible that the viral load is higher in those with the new variant, which could increase the amount of virus generated by respiratory activity [i.e. breathing]’.
They added: ‘It may be necessary to extend the use of face coverings to a wider number of settings (e.g. workplaces and education) where they are not currently mandated. This is important even when people are more than 2m apart, as correctly worn face coverings also reduce the emission rate of small aerosols.’
In the same SAGE meeting the advisers warned that the new variant behind the spiralling second wave appears so much more contagious that the blanket restrictions imposed in November would be ‘highly unlikely’ to contain its spread.
The warning came from minutes of a meeting of the top scientists on December 22, shortly after Boris Johnson announced the existence of the Covid mutation and tore up plans for Christmas ‘bubbles’.
‘It is highly unlikely that measures with stringency and adherence in line with the measures in England in November (i.e. with schools open) would be sufficient to maintain R below 1 in the presence of the new variant,’ the scientists said.
‘R would be lower with schools closed, with closure of secondary schools likely to have a greater effect than closure of primary schools. It remains difficult to distinguish where transmission between children takes place, and it is important to consider contacts made outside of schools.’
The minutes added: ‘It is not known whether measures with similar stringency and adherence as Spring, with both primary and secondary schools closed, would be sufficient to bring R below 1 in the presence of the new variant.’