New Zealand’s ‘social bubbles’, Hong Kong’s real-time R rate, and South Korea style testing: The measures scientists say are needed to ease Britain’s lockdown
- Scientists said restrictions should not be eased until testing system is robust
- Success stories they pointed to included New Zealand’s use of ‘social bubbles’
- They also cautioned people are gradually turning to a ‘new normal’
Britain must follow in the footsteps of New Zealand, Hong Kong and South Korea if it wants to thwart a second wave of coronavirus and ease lockdown, scientists say.
Researchers from the UK and Asia analysed the Covid-19 responses around the world and highlighted the three countries as shining examples of how to successfully squash Covid-19 outbreaks.
They have urged health bosses in the UK to adopt New Zealand’s social bubble policy, Hong Kong’s real-time reproduction ‘R’ rate surveillance programme and South Korea’s rapid test and trace strategy to add to their arsenal of Covid-19-beating tactics.
In New Zealand, people can form ‘bubbles’ of up to ten other people who they can see without having to wear a mask or socially distance. These people must be close family, local friends, caregivers, or those from a single-person household.
The UK has also adopted a stricter version of the strategy, which only allows carers, or people from one-man homes to ‘bubble’ with another family. The researchers believe the more lenient rule Down Under has made people more likely to stick to the guidelines.
In Hong Kong, rapid testing means their R rate closely mirrors the situation on the ground, allowing authorities to respond quickly to an outbreak. In the UK, a shortage of tests has meant the R rate is up to a week behind the actual rates of infection, leaving local authorities unable to respond swiftly to sudden surges.
In South Korea, the vast majority of tests are turned around in 24 hours and most close contacts of infected patients are hunted down and isolated. Britain, on the other hand, has struggled to ramp up capacity, leaving people unable to access tests, and improve its turnaround time on swabs – fewer than a third of Brits who take a ‘walk-in’ test get a result within a day.
Scientists from the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine and National University of Singapore, who did the study, said the UK’s failure to keep a lid on the epidemic this autumn was ‘an important reminder of the enormous potential for resurgence’.
Researchers from the UK and Asia analysed the Covid-19 responses in five Asian countries (Hong Kong, Japan, New Zealand, Singapore and South Korea) and four European countries (Germany, Norway, Spain and the UK)
They compared the various rules in countries, including mask-wearing and social distancing guidance
The researchers praised South Korea for its stringent contact tracing system. The Asian nation turns the vast majority of tests are turned around in 24 hours and most close contacts of infected patients are hunted down and isolated.
How to exit a Covid-19 lockdown, according to scientists
In their paper the researchers argue countries must have the below five conditions before exiting lockdown.
Knowledge of infection status
- Widespread testing to monitor spread of the disease
- Social-distancing and mask wearing policies in place
- Precautionary measures for schools and workplaces
- Communication to secure public trust and co-operation
- Protecting vulnerable populations
- Provision of socioeconomic support
- Test, trace and isolate in place
- Role of experts
- Treatment facilities
- Medical equipment
- Health-care workforce
Measures for border control
- Provision of restrictions for inbound travel
In the paper published in the Lancet, the researchers looked at the Covid responses in five Asian countries (Hong Kong, Japan, New Zealand, Singapore and South Korea) and four European countries (Germany, Norway, Spain and the UK).
They recommended that countries pursue a ‘challenging’ zero Covid-19 strategy, to eliminate the virus, due to the expected burden of long Covid.
Writing in the study, the authors say governments ‘should consider five key strategies for easing lockdown restrictions: Knowledge of infection levels, community engagement, public health capacity, health system capacity, and border control measures.’
They cautioned that countries are gradually transitioning to a ‘new normal’, rather than to the world before March 2020, and should be careful when loosening restrictions.
Asian nations were praised for having greater success in squashing their pandemics.
Experts believe this is due to previous experience battling with infectious diseases through the SARS outbreak in 2003 and MERS in 2015.
Dealing with those outbreaks allowed the Governments there to establish robust contact tracing systems.
Behaviours such as wearing face masks were also widespread before the virus hit, making it easier to control the outbreak.
European countries on the other hand, with the exception of Germany, had weakened their health systems through years of austerity the researchers said, making it harder for them to respond to the virus.
Lead author Dr Helena Legido-Quigley, from the National University of Singapore and London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, said Covid-19 is a ‘serious disease’ that will ‘be with us for a long time’.
‘There is increasing realisation that the easing of lockdown is not about returning to pre-pandemic normal, and governments have to find strategies that will prevent rapid growth of infections in ways that are sustainable and acceptable to the public over many months,’ she said.
‘Our review of international experiences identifies lessons governments can learn from each other’s successes and failures.
‘We are not advising that the exact same measures should be replicated in different countries, but it is not too late for governments to consider novel policy solutions developed by other countries and adapt them to fit their own context.’
Paper co-author Professor Martin McKee, from the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, added: ‘As some countries around the world begin to see a resurgence in cases and retighten restrictions, it is imperative that countries learn the lessons that we’ve laid out for the future.
‘There are no simple solutions but great benefits from learning from the experiences of others.’
On the UK’s experience of the pandemic, they write it is one of the countries that has been worst affected. They add that years of austerity left the country in a difficult position to battle the virus when the virus first struck
‘Easing restrictions is something that should be managed with great care and continued vigilance,’ they said, ‘and, at the time of writing, Spain, Germany and the UK have offered a reminder of the enormous potential for resurgence if comprehensive safeguards are not in place’.
To date the UK has recorded 410,000 cases of the disease, and 41,862 deaths.
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