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The end of lockdown, masks outdoors, and the UK’s COVID mistakes: Patrick Vallance answers your questions

In a rare opportunity for the public to put their questions directly to a top government scientist, Sir Patrick Vallance appeared on Sky News to talk lockdown, vaccines and how soon we can return to a more normal life. 

The chief scientific adviser, a regular at Downing Street’s coronavirus news briefings over the past nine months, also answered concerns regarding face masks, care homes and more.

Here’s a catch-up if you missed it.

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Patrick Vallance

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Sir Patrick Vallance has answered your questions

If you could go back to March 2020, what measures would you recommend to government knowing then what you know now?

Sir Patrick said there is definitely an advantage in hindsight, and we now know a lot more about the virus than we did at the start of the pandemic.

But, after the government has repeatedly been accused of being too slow to impose restrictions, he admitted that “waiting and watching simply doesn’t work”.

“The lesson is go earlier than you think you want to, go harder than you think you want to, and go a bit broader than you think you want to in terms of applying the restrictions,” he said.

Intriguingly, he finished by quoting Einstein’s definition of insanity as doing the same thing repeatedly “and expecting different results”.

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Need restrictions ‘earlier, harder, broader’

Will the government keep the lockdown for longer if coronavirus cases and deaths do not come down? And if so, how long will it last?

While the vaccine rollout remains promising, Sir Patrick said it will not be able to do the “heavy lifting” yet in terms of bringing down cases – and at the moment, infections are still “nowhere near where they need to be”.

Refusing to put a date on when lockdown could be lifted, the chief scientific adviser made clear it is too early to be talking about relaxing restrictions.

He also suggested it would be more of a “slow release” of lockdown, rather than a “big bang” which would see lots of restrictions lifted at once.

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‘Vaccines won’t do the heavy lifting’

In a similar vein, Sir Patrick was asked how many people would need vaccinating before we can remove some restrictions

The vaccines work to protect people from severe illness and reduce their chances of dying – but we do not yet know how well they can reduce transmission of the virus, Sir Patrick said.

He pointed out that only one in eight people in the UK have had the virus, so there are still many people who do not have protective antibodies.

But he did give a rough figure for how many people need to be vaccinated for collective immunity: 70%.

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Vaccine ‘won’t necessarily’ stop infections

Will we have periods every year where we need to go into lockdown again because people have not received their yearly top-up of the vaccine?

It is “quite likely” we will need to be vaccinated regularly – annually or bi-annually – for “at least a few years”, Sir Patrick said.

We will also likely need to adjust the vaccine each year, as we currently do with flu vaccinations, but this will be planned ahead.

The good news is that he expects we will be in a much better position by this winter as the vaccine will be rolled out across large numbers of the population.

We can’t assume there won’t be any action needed this winter, but there will more likely be softer measures such as wearing masks, being sensible indoors and hand washing.

“I’ll be very surprised if year on year we need to do more than that,” Sir Patrick said.

People in face coverings, leave after receiving their COVID-19 vaccinations at the Olympic Office Centre, in Wembley, north London

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Vaccines by Pfizer/BioNTech and Oxford/AstraZeneca are currently being used in the UK

Israel has done some trials and disputes the UK’s claim of 89% efficacy after the first dose of the Pfizer vaccine – they claim it to be more like 33%. What do you think of this?

Sir Patrick’s explanation for the discrepancy is that the figures from Israel were produced by looking at rates of infection in people who were given the jab 14 days ago.

If we are looking at the vaccine’s efficacy over a 28-day period, this would show around 50% protection overall.

But we know already that the vaccine does not offer protection for the first 10 days, as the immune system is building up. So if we look at data from day 10 onwards – as the UK trials have done – it looks much closer to the 89% figure.

He added that real-world data will look a little different to lab data as “things are seldom as good as in clinical trials”.

Vaccines minister Nadhim Zahawi

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Nadhim Zahawi has been tasked with leading the government’s vaccine rollout

Why have BAME people not been made a priority group for the vaccine, despite evidence they are at higher risk?

It is crucial these groups are “targeted” and “come forward” for vaccination, Sir Patrick said.

But the prioritisation is based on those at the highest risk and scientists believe the biggest risk factor is age.

With a dose of a vaccine, PPE and use of lateral flow testing, is it relatively safe for indoor care home visits?

“I’m afraid my answer is, no, it’s not safe,” Sir Patrick replied firmly.

He warned that relaxing rules in care homes would not be appropriate given the high community transmission and could risk “the whole thing flaring up”.

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Care staff in crisis mode at Sheffield nursing home

How much protection do face masks offer?

Masks are most effective at protecting those wearing them from spreading COVID-19 to others, Sir Patrick said.

They are somewhat effective at protecting the mask-wearer too, but we are not sure to what extent yet.

Even so, he made clear we must continue to wear masks.

A member of staff wearing a face mask works at a Sainsbury's supermarket, amid the spread of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19), in London, Britain January 11, 2021. REUTERS/Hannah McKay

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Face masks are most useful in preventing indoor transmission

When will wearing face masks be mandatory outdoors?

Sir Patrick said face masks are most useful in indoor environments, such as shops and supermarkets.

Although they can be useful outdoors where there is crowding, he said that “frankly, there shouldn’t be any crowding” while we are in lockdown.

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Sallie Anderson
Sallie works as the Writer at World Weekly News. She likes to write about the latest trends going on in our world and share it with our readers.

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