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COVID-19 roadmap: How government is planning to make the virus manageable in the years to come

Written by on 23 February 2021

The government has set out how it intends to turn the COVID-19 pandemic into a virus that is manageable in the long term.

In a 60-page roadmap showing how it plans to tackle the crisis, officials warned we could continue to see dangerous, seasonal surges next year and beyond.

The government said it cannot rule out re-imposing economic and social restrictions at a local or regional level if it is necessary to suppress coronavirus in the short term.

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And funding for its Contain Outbreak Management Fund – which provides financial support to local authorities in England to reduce the spread of COVID-19 – will increase by another £400m to £2bn going forward into 2022.

According to the roadmap, we should expect the test, trace and isolate system to be used to keep the virus in check, ongoing regular asymptomatic testing in sectors with the highest rates of transmission, and workplace testing.

In addition, a suite of other measures will be assessed over the coming months – including COVID certification, international travel monitoring and a social distancing review.

England’s chief scientific adviser Sir Patrick Vallance told a Downing Street news conference on Monday night that even more measures may be required.

He said: “We think it’s possible that… next winter in particular, certain things may be necessary.

“It may be necessary next winter to have things like mask wearing in certain situations. And hygiene should remain part of the norm – making sure that if we get the sorts of symptoms that we know are associated (with COVID), we stay off work.

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“Having effective test, trace and isolate systems still in place will be an important part of the baseline measures that we’re talking about.

“And taking individual responsibility… thinking about where there’s an environment in which they could be at risk, particularly during the winter months, are the sorts of things that I think we should expect for next winter.

“All of this depends on what we see and what we measure and how this goes. I’m not making any promises about anything, but those are the sorts of measures that you might expect as a sort of baseline to be required during winter months.”

The government says in its roadmap there is no certainty about when several of the measures it has in place – such as social distancing of one-metre plus and mandatory mask wearing in some situations – will be lifted.

England’s chief medical officer Professor Chris Whitty warned in the news conference that he expects COVID in future years to mirror annual outbreaks of flu, which result in thousands of deaths every year.

The government’s hope is that setting up its new National Institute for Health Protection – which incorporates Public Health England, NHS Test and Trace and the UK-wide Joint Biosecurity Centre – will help prevent or suppress future outbreaks.

But some scientists have said they are worried the government’s plan does not go far enough in protecting the country from the potential future threat posed by coronavirus.

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Martin Hibberd, professor of emerging infectious diseases at the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine, said:”Looking at the modelling, I have a worry that September this year will be very similar to September last year.

“With some luck, I think we may escape the predicted huge increase in cases in June and July (thanks to the vaccines being better than we thought), but if we do, we will end up too relaxed and then be wide open for new vaccine escape variants to arrive and drive up the cases for September.

“Just as last year, we need to be planning to get test and trace to work (preferably by returning it to PHE, NHS and local government) during the (hopefully) quiet summer months, so that any new upturn in cases can be quickly spotted and averted (without the need for lockdowns again next winter).

“Where is the planning to make us resilient to future outbreaks? If we don’t do it now, it will certainly be forgotten by the time we need it.”