Since the COVID-19 outbreak was declared a global pandemic by the World Health Organisation (WHO) on March 11, governments have been rallying to flatten the curve by introducing community lockdowns and strict social distancing measures. The drastic measures are undoubtedly saving lives and the policy makers behind the calls say science plays a critical role in guiding the decision.

The all-important reproductive rate of transmission

In the same way science guided governments on enforcing the lockdowns, it will also help determine when to lift social distancing measures. In a recent meeting held by the Parliament’s Science and Technology Committee, a group of leading scientists were questioned on their attitudes towards the COVID-19 restrictions.

One area they universally agreed on was that to lift the lockdown the COVID-19 outbreak in the UK needs to be under control. This means the reproductive rate of transmission needs to fall below one, i.e. on average every person with the virus only infects one additional person. According to some scientists, the latest deaths and hospitalisations data suggests the UK has already reached this milestone. Sir Patrick Vallance, the government’s chief scientific adviser, says that while this may be true in a community context, some hospitals and care homes are still high risk with a potential reproductive rate of transmission above one.

For governments to confidently lift lockdowns science insists the low reproductive rate of transmission trend must be solid. Experts also stress the importance of increasing testing and tracking so if another outbreak does occur it’s easier to manage.

Clashing opinions

Unsurprisingly, not all the data aligns. For example, while some experts say school closures are unnecessary, others insist they’re essential. Professor Neil Ferguson, a British epidemiologist and key health advisor to the government, says the closure of schools coupled with “intense social distancing” is one of the most effective ways to quarantine individual households and curb community spread. The view is different from an economic perspective, with schools allowing parents, and frontline health employees, to work from home or in the field.

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