Restrictions could be relaxed for young healthy adults and children as long as measures remained to keep transmission rates low, while being stepped up for more vulnerable people, academics believe.
The advice has been made available to both the UK and Scottish governments, in a model known as segmenting and shielding.
Crucially it would not overwhelm the NHS, as the most vulnerable population would be 'shielded' - however its success would depend on high standards of hygiene in homes as well as in hospitals and care homes.
Academics from Edinburgh University and the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine have modelled a range of scenarios to illustrate how different restrictions could be applied to different groups.
These would include self-isolation of people with Covid-19, quarantining affected households, contact tracing and voluntary social distancing.
The most vulnerable would still need to be shielded from contact with anyone potentially infected with the virus - meaning people sharing a house with a vulnerable person, care workers and health professionals would need to protect themselves from infection.
Academics believe the less at-risk population could be allowed to have restrictions eased, and proposed a response based on appropriate and effective clinical care and proportionate public health measures.
Ideally, there would be intensive screening of everyone who comes into contact with the vulnerable population.
The researchers say the models are robust to a wide range of assumptions about immunity to COVID-19, but they cautioned that not enough is known about the build-up of immunity in affected populations, which needs to be monitored.
Dr Bram van Bunnik, Postdoctoral Research Fellow at Edinburgh University’s Usher Institute, said: “Easing the measures taken during the lockdown is important as they currently have a tremendous effect on our society, but this should only be done in a way that is both safe for the people that are most vulnerable as well as for the health and safety of NHS staff.
“Segmentation and shielding is a possible way of achieving this - measures could be eased for a large proportion of the population, however the vulnerable population likely still needs to be protected for a prolonged period.”
Mark Woolhouse, Professor of Infectious Disease Epidemiology at Edinburgh, added: “Segmentation and shielding recognizes that, although social distancing impacts on the whole of society, the public health burden of Covid-19 is concentrated in a subset of vulnerable people.
“By targeting protection to those that need it most, the strategy helps to ensure that the health system is not overwhelmed by severe cases, while giving policy makers greater leeway to partially relax social distancing measures for the majority of the population.”
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