BRITAIN could start to ease lockdown restrictions if over 70s stay shielded, scientists have said.
Researchers from Edinburgh University have said keeping the most vulnerable people inside could allow more than half of Britain to have restrictions relaxed.
The proposal from the researchers has been submitted to ministers as an option to allow millions of people to return to work, according to The Guardian.
In one scenario looked at by the researchers in Edinburgh, the most vulnerable 20 per cent of society would only come into contact with a further 20 per cent of “shielders” including healthcare workers and family members.
Ideally, the shielders would be tested for coronavirus every day to ensure they can’t pass on the infection.
The researchers said it would protect those most likely to have serious complications from coronavirus without risking a deadly second wave of infections that could overwhelm the NHS – the most critical test for easing lockdown.
Ministers are worried it could amount to discrimination if the lockdown is eased for younger people, while older groups still have to heed stay-at-home advice.
Professor of infectious disease epidemiology at Edinburgh University Mark Woolhouse said: “The strategy works by concentrating efforts to control Covid-19 in the segment of the population that most needs protecting.
“It’s a nasty disease and we want to control it as much as we can, but it’s not so nasty in 80% of the population that we’d ever have contemplated locking down the whole country to control it.”
Professor Woolhouse stressed it would not be a magic bullet for curbing the outbreak, and contact tracing and other measures would still be crucial.
Professor Woolhouse, who stressed he was speaking as an independent scientist, is also a member of the UK Government’s scientific pandemic influenza group on modelling (Spi-M).
Former Conservative Party leader Iain Duncan Smith said: “A lot of people over 70 are fit and have kept themselves fit, often more so than people of other ages.
“There has been a backlash and people don’t think it’s the right way to go about it.”
It was revealed yesterday that the Government’s top scientists modelled a longer lockdown of around 17 weeks for older and vulnerable people, compared with eight to 13 weeks for everyone else.
The Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage) found the outcome of a longer lockdown for the most vulnerable could reduce deaths by up to 35 per cent – or up to 50 per cent if combined with self-isolation for those who have symptoms and their households.
Ministers are understood to have considered the idea, and Health Secretary Matt Hancock did not rule it out when pressed on the idea yesterday.
A spokesman for No10 said earlier this week it was “perfectly reasonably that we will look at how guidance will apply for different age bands and we’ll continue to be guided by the science.”
There is a massively disproportionate risk of death when elderly and vulnerable people catch coronavirus.
Boris Johnson is expected to lay out his blueprint for how Britain will ease restrictions on Sunday.
Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab has said the next phase should be “more comfortable and more sustainable” for Brits.
Restrictions on outdoor activities are likely to be lifted first, Downing Street said yesterday.
People may be able to enjoy the outdoors with “small bubbles” of families and friends over coming weeks.
For the rest of Britain, some form of social distancing and hand hygiene will still be needed, but more drastic restrictions could be relaxed without setting off a second wave of infections.
Oxford University professor of gerontology Sarah Harper said classing all over 70s as vulnerable would mean some “healthy, active, older individuals” could be sentenced to their homes unfairly.
She said: “Easing lockdown might be more effective if the risks were explicitly explained to the population, the possible range of vulnerabilities highlighted and individuals asked to take appropriate action.
“These are sensible public health approaches which might have a better chance of being complied with.”
Senior mental health experts share Professor Harper’s concerns, saying healthy, elderly Brits needed to be freed from lockdown.