Segmentation and shielding: how to lift lockdown faster

On Sunday Prime Minister Johnson is expected to set out how restrictions will be eased in England. All indications are that it will be a very gradual process to keep the rate of transmission of the virus down.

But some believe we do not need to be so draconian.

Edinburgh University and a group of London-based academics published a paper this week arguing restrictions could be lifted quite significantly if the most vulnerable were completely shielded.

That would require the continued isolation of these individuals and the regular testing of their carers – or shielders as the researchers call them.

If we could protect them – and that would require very good access to quick testing and protective equipment – the researchers believe we could lift many restrictions and allow a “controlled” epidemic in the general population.

Good hand-hygiene, isolating when you have symptoms and voluntary social distancing where possible would be needed. But people could return to work, and school – in a matter of months. The majority could even be eating in restaurants and going to cinemas.

For the non-vulnerable population, coronavirus carries no more risk than a “nasty flu”, says Prof Mark Woolhouse, an expert in infectious disease who led the research.

“If it wasn’t for the fact that it presents such a high risk of severe disease in vulnerable groups, we would never have taken the steps we have and closed down the country.

“If we can shield the vulnerable really well, there is no reason why we cannot lift many of the restrictions in place for others.

“The lockdown has come at a huge economic, social and health cost.”

It is, he says, all about getting the balance of risk right.

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