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Coronavirus ‘can be eradicated from UK by Christmas’, scientist claims


Coronavirus could be eradicated from the UK by Christmas, says one of the country’s top microbiologists.

Professor Hugh Pennington, emeritus professor of bacteriology at Aberdeen University, said if mass testing and contact tracing was ramped up Britain may be clear of Covid-19 by the end of the year.

But the academic was scathing about government efforts so far to tackle the virus.

“I would give the UK and Scottish governments five out of ten over the way they have handled this. This big mistake was on March 12 when they decided the policy was to just flatten the curve and give up mass testing and contact tracing,” he said.

“The policy was taken, it seems to me, because of a lack of testing capacity and it was wrong. I think it was a bad policy judgement. They could have used university labs, more NHS labs and others much sooner.

Microbiologist Professor Hugh Pennington in Cardiff for the inquiry, which he is leading, into the death of Mason Jones, who contracted the 0157 strain of E.coli in what is believed to have been the UK’s second largest E.coli outbreak.

“At the moment we are past the peak, but not on a significantly downward trend, the virus is at a sort of a plateau just below the peak. There is too much of it about at the moment and we need to get it down ten fold.

“If we do a lot more testing and contact tracing by Christmas we could get it eradicated in the UK. That is what has happened in China and South Korea and New Zealand look like they have got there too.

“We could get this down to zero – or near zero – by Christmas. If China can do it we can. The only problems would be people with the virus coming in at airports and ports.”

Thermal imaging cameras are to be used at Heathrow to check passengers for coronavirus.

A person using the C-19 Covid Symptom Tracker app on a mobile phone, as the UK continues in lockdown to help curb the spread of the coronavirus. Picture date: Monday April 27, 2020.

The cameras will be used as part of a trial at the airport which is also looking to introduce contactless security measures and UV sanitation to ensure travellers are safe.

Data from the trials, and whether the measures prove medical effective, will be shared with Government and industry and could lead to the creation of a Common International Standard for health screening.

But Prof Pennington said:”I am sceptical this will work well enough because you will miss half of those infected because of the (incubation) period of the virus when people may not be showing symptoms.”

And he added:”We also can’t wait for a vaccine. We don’t know if we will get a successful vaccine and anybody who says we will is wrong.

“We are quite a long way from getting this (covid-19) really under control. I don’t think we are anywhere close.”

Professor Pennington also said experts on the key Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies ( SAGE ) which is advising the UK Government mainly have experience of flu and are too focussed on how that infection behaves.

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“This is not flu. The more you look at this virus the more the differences emerge,” he said.

“I think it is inescapable to conclude that flu has been used too much in the pandemic planning…..on how flu behaves. For instance I am not aware of any ethnic or obesity risk with flu as there is with Covid-19.”

Prof Pennington said primary schools could be among the first things to have restrictions eased.

“Young children appear not to be good incubators and a source of transmission of the virus. In Iceland they could not find any cases under nine years,” he said.

“The way out of this is increased testing and aggressive contact tracing. The problem with this virus is that a lot of cases are asymptomatic.

“It keeps getting compared to flu, but this not flu – it is a coronavirus like SARS, and that went away, and my hope is it behaves the same way.”

A new contact-tracing app for managing the coronavirus outbreak will be piloted on the Isle of Wight this week.

“The app might help but it is not the answer,” said Prof Pennington.

“It might be more useful in some parts of the country than others. For instance there are particularly privacy concerns in Northern Ireland and the uptake of the app may not be high enough.”

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