The UK needs an ‘early warning system’ to track new variants when Covid restrictions are lifted, a leading vaccine expert has said.
Prime Minister Boris Johnson is to announce his living with Covid plan today (Monday, February 21) which will see the scrapping of regulations put in place to control the pandemic.
Professor Sir Andrew Pollard told BBC Radio 4’s Today program there is a need to monitor variants to see if they are more dangerous than Omicron.
The director of the Oxford Vaccine Group at the University of Oxford said: “One of the key things is, whenever we do reduce restrictions, we need to have a number of measures in place for that period, and one of the most critical is surveillance for the virus, an early warning system if you like, which tells us about new variants emerging and gives an ability to monitor whether those new variants are indeed causing more severe disease than Omicron did.
“And that is something which can be put in place, and I hope that if there are announcements today that we’ll hear exactly how that will work.”
On whether fourth doses will be needed, he said there is also a need to track variants to inform future vaccines.
“As far as whether we need them for the whole population, I don’t think that’s likely to be the future – for whole populations to get regular doses,” he said.
“But we are identifying those in society who are particularly vulnerable to the virus, and it’s certainly reasonable to think that further doses may be needed to maintain immunity in those who are at greatest risk of ending up in hospital.”
He also told the program that the UK has a “wall of immunity now” thanks to the vaccines “but the decision about when and how to reduce restrictions is enormously difficult”.
He said the benefits of restrictions are obvious in “reducing chains of transmission, the risks of people getting infected, the burden on the health system”, but the harms of restrictions are harder to assess.
“They include things, just from a health perspective, like the the impact on hospitals of having staff self-isolating, the inability to perform operations, there will be surgery canceled today that may be critical for people because of staff who are off work during that period; the impact on education, on the workplace and the economy.
“The impacts on the economy and mental health will have longer-term consequences. So if we could find a measure that brings all of that together, we could work out the exact right moment (for lifting restrictions).”
Sir Andrew said “there isn’t a right or wrong answer to this because we don’t have a measure that helps us get there”.