Public could be able to ditch face masks over summer thanks to vaccine, claim UK Government advisers

The public should be able to ditch face masks over the summer as vaccines do the heavy lifting in controlling Covid-19, scientific advisers briefing the UK Government believe.

Travellers arrive at Edinburgh Airport wearing face masks. Picture: Lisa Ferguson

Step four of the UK Government's road map for England states that all legal limits on social contact will be removed by June 21 at the earliest, when restrictions on large events such as festivals are also expected to ease.

But the Scottish Government has been more cautious under the country’s own route map out of lockdown, saying by the end of June it is hoped the whole of Scotland will be moved down to level zero restrictions.

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Shoppers would still be required to wear a face covering when they enter any retail premises, including any indoor area of a shopping centre, under guidelines for areas in level zero.

But scientists advising the UK Government say there is nothing in current data to suggest that people will not be able to enjoy a relatively normal summer, though coronavirus cases may well rise as the autumn approaches.

Asked about mask-wearing in coming months, one source said vaccines were working so well and there was such good vaccine uptake among members of the public that things would return to much more like normal life over the summer months, with cases dropping very low in May.

However, masks and possibly other measures may be needed next autumn and winter if cases surge, they said.

Nevertheless, the general view among scientific advisers is that the spike in cases in winter will be lower than in the past due to high levels of immunity and vaccination.

The source said that what happens will depend on people's behaviours, as well as measures such as increased ventilation indoors, good hand hygiene and whether people isolate when they display symptoms – seen as the critical to controlling spread.

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They said the UK needs to abandon its culture of "presenteeism" and going into work when feeling unwell, instead choosing to stay at home if they fall sick.

The source said there should be a relaxation of measures across all age groups soon, including for those who have had two vaccines, enabling them to meet up more freely.

On the issue of border controls to keep out variants of concern, the source said that even with extremely draconian border measures, all that happens is there is a delay to importing cases.

Nevertheless, delay is still seen as a valuable tool as it allows experts to work out how to deal with variants and get more information.

But the source said there were currently no variants that completely evade vaccine effectiveness, and people's immune responses to vaccines is probably enough to have quite a significant effect on most variants.

It comes as documents released on Friday from the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage) say that, for adults, the majority of contacts – who the virus could be passed on to – are associated with work.

"The trajectory of the epidemic over the coming months is therefore likely to depend to a large extent on the scale of increase in workplace contacts," the document dated April 8 says.

The papers also note that while rodents are a possible animal reservoir for Covid, the likelihood currently of a variant of concern emerging as a result of adaptation in rodents is low.

Sage has also considered data which suggests that the length of hospital stays of Covid-19 patients may have reduced slightly.

In Scotland, chief medical officer Gregor Smith said in a media briefing on Thursday that until everyone was vaccinated, mask wearing was one of Scotland's key defences against the virus.

"The defence that we have against this virus at this point in time until sufficient people are vaccinated across the country is three pronged," he said.

“It's the vaccination programme, it's the behaviours that you, myself and others take every day in society and how we interact with others, and it's the test and protect system in terms of being able to identify people, advising them to isolate, and for them to comply with that isolation as well.

Dr Smith said the "unknown" in terms of whether these measures could be reduced was how the vaccine would respond to emerging variants.

“There is much work which is being done through the scientific community, both here and abroad, to understand exactly the impact of variants like those first identified in South Africa or Brazil on current vaccines," he said.

“I suspect that over time, we're going to find that updates to these vaccines will take place to make sure that they are configured to be much much more useful in terms of these variants, and inevitably the further variants that we will begin to see develop as well.”

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