Infectious disease experts from the University of Warwick say a cautious, measured approach to relaxation of lockdown measures is required to protect the most vulnerable members of society and support the health service. This may lead to the need for social distancing measures, varying by region and in the absence of a vaccine, to be in place until mid-2021, they say.
The team have investigated the effect of current lockdown measures on the spread of COVID-19 in the UK. Using a detailed mathematical model, they have been able to forecast both the short- and long-term impact of COVID-19 as lockdown measures are relaxed.
The strategies investigated included reducing adherence with the lockdown rules; ongoing shielding of elder age groups, whereas relaxing measures for younger members of the population; and short application of stringent social distancing measures using region-based triggers.
They found that significant relaxation of social distancing measures could lead to a rapid resurgence of COVID-19, leading to the health system being quickly overwhelmed by a sizeable, second epidemic wave. In all considered shielding-based strategies, they projected serious demand on critical care resources.
In contrast, the reintroduction and release of strict measures on a regional basis, based on ICU bed occupancy, results in a long epidemic tail, until the second half of 2021, but ensures that the health service is protected by reintroducing social distancing measures for all individuals in a region when required.
The research supports the decision to introduce stringent non-pharmaceutical measures in March 2020 to suppress the epidemic. It also provides strong evidence to support the need for a cautious, measured approach to relaxation of lockdown measures.