People should be paid to self-isolate as part of a new Covid-19 strategy in the UK, a public health expert has said.
Professor Devi Sridhar said their would need to overhaul its thinking on coronavirus and warned that the UK should be more proactive by using methods already tried in other countries, including improving test and trace systems and stricter measures at international borders.
Professor Sridhar, chairwoman of public health at Edinburgh University and an adviser said there is currently “no clear strategy” in the UK other than “reactive lockdowns”.
She told Times Radio: “First, they have a strategy that from the start they said there was no acceptable level of infection, I think in Western countries, in the UK, there was always the idea that you could have a certain level of infection as long as it didn’t really reach your hospital capacity.”
Each devolved administration is responsible for how it handles Covid-19, but all four are currently in lockdown following a spike in cases and deaths in the past six weeks, at least partially caused by a new, more transmissible strain of the virus.
Prof Sridhar urged governments to be more proactive, stressing that the three vaccines approved in the past month could not be considered a strategy.
She said: “I think the larger issue here is the UK has no clear strategy beyond reactive lockdowns whenever hospitals are under pressure.
“People have been in lockdown for almost a year and I think it is unrealistic for people to continue to distance and avoid mixing for months and months when it’s part of what makes us human.”
Lessons should be learned from other countries, Prof Sridhar said, adding: “I see this slightly differently. We need a plan to stop these lockdowns, and to learn from other countries – those in east Asia and the Pacific – which are largely back to normal.”
Test and trace systems must be improved, along with stricter measures at international borders and support packages for people who are forced to self-isolate, the public health expert said.
While vaccines provide a “bright spot”, there are still questions about how they will affect the long-term prevalence of coronavirus, she said.
The length of time people will be immune to the virus for, how many people will need to take it to provide herd immunity, and whether it will stop those with the virus from being infectious all still need to be addressed.
Prof Sridhar said: “For me, the vaccine is definitely there, we have to continue rollout, keep saving lives through protecting vulnerable people with that.
“But it’s not a strategy in and of itself, and relying on it alone is highly, highly risky, especially with all the new variants and mutations. We need to have a plan and the vaccine supports that plan but it’s just your plan.”
Without a clear strategy, the UK could see more lockdowns needed in the summer, according to the Scottish Government adviser, who urged politicians to be more proactive.
She said: “We are not at the mercy of this virus where whatever it does we have to react.
“We can dictate how this evolves, but we need a bit more agency in being more proactive and ahead of it instead of always behind it.”
Conceding lockdowns are “crude” and “catastrophic” for the economy and mental health, Prof Sridhar said the current measures are necessary to drive down cases and allow improvements to be made to test and trace systems.
But she warned against reopening the economy fully in the summer, saying: “Instead of taking your foot off the gas and saying ‘Let’s open up everything’, actually think ‘How do we prevent this winter from happening again? How do we actually protect that low prevalence?’
“Get emergency teams in place in case there are flare-ups … go in, have a quick, sharp one-week lockdown and get your testing and tracing to clear the virus.”
“The second thing is they have functional testing, tracing and isolating, test results within 24 hours – which we still do not have – isolation, paying people to stay home as an act of good will not just requesting it and having people be penalised for it.
“And third, robust border measures so you don’t keep having lockdowns and reimporting new strains.
“I find it amazing that schools are shut, I can’t visit my neighbour’s home, unemployment’s rising, businesses are shut. We’re having 1,000 Covid deaths a day but the one thing I can do is I can go on holiday to Dubai easily and return easily back without any testing at the airport.”