SAGE can’t decide on how Christmas will affect UK coronavirus outbreak, meeting reports show

The Government’s top scientific advisers can’t decide on how relaxing social distancing at Christmas will affect coronavirus cases.

In a meeting on December 2 SAGE experts admitted they are ‘highly uncertain’ about what will happen after next weekend.

Boris Johnson this week urged people not to socialise with friends and families at Christmas but stopped short of changing official guidance that says they can, with up to three households allowed to mix indoors between December 23 and 27.

There are fears that family reunions will see thousands of people spread the virus to their parents and grandparents and lead to a surge in Covid-19 hospital admissions and deaths in the new year.

But SPI-M, a subgroup of SAGE, said that the closure of schools and offices over the festive period could lead to a fall in infections that would normally be caught in those places. 

Some of the highest infection rates in the second wave have been among children and teenagers, with around one in 50 of them thought to be carrying the virus last week. And they will now mostly be at home for the next two to three weeks.

SAGE files released today also showed that the advisers are in favour of using rapid swab tests to shorten the time people need to self-isolate, suggested the tests could be used before Christmas to reduce infection risk, and said accurate vaccination statistics should be made ‘widely available’.

Coronavirus regulations in England will allow up to three households to mix indoors for up to five days over Christmas, but experts predict there will be a spike in cases among older generations who are most at risk of dying of Covid-19 (stock image)

Coronavirus regulations in England will allow up to three households to mix indoors for up to five days over Christmas, but experts predict there will be a spike in cases among older generations who are most at risk of dying of Covid-19 (stock image)

Coronavirus regulations in England will allow up to three households to mix indoors for up to five days over Christmas, but experts predict there will be a spike in cases among older generations who are most at risk of dying of Covid-19 (stock image)

In a report from SPI-M’s December 2 meeting the advisers wrote: ‘The outcome of relaxation over the festive period remains highly uncertain. 

‘The rules in place would greatly restrict mixing compared to most years; if adherence to these restrictions is high then it is highly unlikely that the prevalence will double.’

The Government this week came close to rowing back on its plan to allow families and friends to mix at Christmas – something that has hardly been allowed all year – but Mr Johnson settled on urging people to ‘keep it small’.

More than half of the UK population is now living under the strictest local lockdown rules as cases and hospital admissions continue to climb across the country.

Although there are fears that the Christmas relaxation period will be risky, the Government’s top scientists don’t seem to agree on whether cases will rise or fall, overall.

They said it was likely that infections among older people would rise because of socialising, but admitted they might fall in younger age groups who will move in smaller circles than if they were at work or school.

The report said: ‘There is significant uncertainty as to how people’s behaviour will change over the holidays.

This, combined with the situation at the point of entering the time between 23rd and 27th December, will affect prevalence going into 2021.

‘With schools and many workplaces closed, transmission in these settings and their associated age groups is likely to fall, but may be replaced by riskier interactions in other, social settings with older, more vulnerable individuals and consequently lead to more severe cases of disease.’ 

TIER SYSTEM NOT GOOD ENOUGH TO CONTROL THE VIRUS, EXPERTS SAY 

The current tier system is not enough to control the spread of coronavirus, scientists have said.

Members of Independent SAGE – an unofficial group of researchers – said the local rules have varying effects in different regions. 

Dr Kit Yates, maths lecturer at the University of Bath, said: ‘I think the tiers at the moment are clearly not enough.

‘Tier Two is not enough to do anything almost anywhere, Tier Three is enough to bring cases down in some regions, but not in others.’

He added there are differences between different regions in terms of their population density and their demographics which change how people mix with each other.

Dr Yates said: ‘One rule isn’t going to be sufficient to bring cases down in every single region.

‘I think there are other reasons why cases might be rising. Particularly at the moment I think the vaccine coming online has meant people perhaps relaxed a little bit, and have decided to let their guard down because they can see this light at the end of the tunnel.

‘I think the Government’s messaging around Christmas, suggesting that it’s okay to meet up, has meant that a lot of people have relaxed, let their guard down early potentially.’ 

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It added that ‘transmission to elderly and more vulnerable people might increase the incidence of disease more than the incidence of infection,’ and said there would likely be ‘a slight shift towards a higher proportion of cases in older and more vulnerable age groups’.

One way to avoid spreading coronavirus at Christmas for people who decide to meet up with others, SAGE said, was to use rapid swab tests beforehand.

The kits, which give results within minutes, are not especially accurate but have been found to be good at detecting those with large amounts virus in their airways, who are thought to be more likely to spread it.

In a separate report from a meeting on December 3, SAGE said: ‘Some modelling suggests there may be benefits if everyone were to take a single lateral flow test before a multi-day gathering inside a home’.

The group added, however, that there were concerns about the accuracy of the tests, which have been found to be about half as good as the proper lab-analysed swabs. 

It said: ‘Lateral flow testing should not be seen as a way on its own of enabling high-risk activities to take place but could reduce the risk of activities being undertaken.’ 

Rapid testing ‘could cut self-isolation to just seven days’  

A SAGE paper published today showed that the scientists have suggested rapid testing for coronavirus be used to slash Brits’ self-isolation time.

They suggested the 20-minute lateral flow tests could be offered to those who have been asked to quarantine after coming into contact with a positive case.

This testing means they could catch infections in the early stages – even before symptoms develop – and also rule out people who repeatedly test negative and release them from isolation before the mandated 10-day period is up, potentially after only a week.

And the testing and prospect of having isolation cut short might boost adherence to self-isolation rules, further curbing the spread of the virus, they said.

They said on November 16: ‘There is likely to be greater adherence to isolation based on daily testing than any other form of isolation.

‘Regular testing of contacts could help to reduce transmission within households by allowing earlier identification of cases and therefore enabling households to isolate and adopt other infection control measures earlier to reduce transmission within the home, especially to vulnerable household members.’

Following advice from SAGE, the Government cut the self-isolation period from 14 days to 10 to boost adherence.

A joint statement released by the chief medical officers of the four UK nations said they were ‘confident’ that cutting the period would ‘save lives’.

England’s deputy chief medical officer Dr Jenny Harries added that the evidence suggested the ‘tail-end of infectiousness, if you like, is the one where an individual is least likely to transmit infection’.

‘So allowing somebody out of self-isolation a short time earlier than that is a reasonable balance between managing the risk to the public but allowing us not to intrude on their lives.’

SAGE calls for transparent vaccine statistics 

SAGE sub-group SPI-M said it is vital that the Government regularly publish statistics showing how many people are being vaccinated or tested for coronavirus.

In a week that saw a row over the Department of Health refusing to publish details of who it has vaccinated, when and where, it emerged that the Government’s top scientists have been calling for data transparency since before the vaccination programme began. 

SPI-M said on December 2: ‘SPI-M-O are very concerned that the introduction of mass testing with lateral flow devices and the potential introduction of immunisation without due regard to consistent recording of the data will decrease understanding of the epidemic considerably.

‘Considerable effort needs to be made to ensure that mass testing results (negative and positive) are differentiated in data streams, and that the number of immunisations given by age, place and time are accurately recorded and made widely available.’ 

Officials claimed this week that around 140,000 people have been vaccinated across the UK so far, pledging to publish more in-depth numbers from next week. 

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