More could be done to suppress spread of coronavirus before winter – expert

More could be done to suppress the spread of coronavirus ahead of winter, with one positive case per million people as a possible goal, an expert has said.

Speaking at the House of Lords Science and Technology Committee on Tuesday, Sir Venki Ramakrishnan, who is the president of the Royal Society, said that while the Government’s policy was to keep the virus transmission rates as low as possible, he added that perhaps elimination, which would involve “one case in a million”, should be “a stated goal or at least an aspiration”.

He cited the example of how Scotland, which is thought to be following an “elimination approach” to tackle the disease, currently has a much lower infection rate than England.

Sir Venki said: “If you look at the situation in Scotland versus England today, the total number of cases per capita is about comparable, which means that in the early stages of the pandemic, the two countries had a very similar outcome.

“But if you look at the infection rate today, Scotland is about 10 times lower than England.”

He added: “I think we could be doing more to suppress the virus more completely before we go into the winter, and that would give us much more leeway.

“It would also make a lot of the environments safer, (like) for example, schools (and) hospitals which we were worried about.”

He also said that the Government needs to be ambitious about the scale of testing, which “will need to be done routinely and more frequently in order to maintain the economy and maintain activities”.

Sir Venki added: “There is no other solution than having a widely distributed surveillance (which is) easily accessible and has rapid turnaround time.”

While giving evidence at the committee, the experts also said that alongside extensive testing, behaviours such as social distancing and wearing face coverings would need to play a role in keeping infection rates low.

Professor Dame Anne Johnson, vice president of Academy of Medical Sciences, told the committee: “I think it’s really important to suppress the virus as much as we can over the summer, when it is less easy to be transmitted when people are outside, because we (can) start from a lower base in September when people start moving indoors.

“But that has to be balanced against what behaviour changes we can maintain in the long run.

“I think we could put more emphasis in what people continue to do to achieve this and we really do have to do this work in the NHS and social care over the summer.

“It’s absolutely critical to get this right and be prepared for this winter and make the place safe and resilient.”

Their comments come as Professor Sir John Bell, of the University of Oxford, told MPs at the Health and Social Care Committee on Tuesday that it is unlikely Covid-19 will be eliminated, saying: “The reality is that this pathogen is here forever, it isn’t going anywhere.”

He said: “Look at how much trouble they’ve had in eliminating, for example, polio, that eradication programme has been going on for 15 years and they’re still not there.

“So this is going to come and go, and we’re going to get winters where we get a lot of this virus back in action.”