UEA expert: Covid isolation 'will still be needed in a year's time'

Prof Paul Hunter of the UEA's Norwich medical school. Photo: Bill Smith

UEA professor Paul Hunter believes people may still be isolating after contracting Covid beyond summer 2022 - Credit: Archant © 2013

At the dawn of the coronavirus pandemic, many hoped a vaccine would be our way out. 

But eight months after the first jab was administered in the UK, case numbers remain high and thousands of people are still having to isolate. 

Here, Thomas Chapman looks at the key issues facing the nation in the months ahead - and the prospect of living with the virus. 

A Norwich-based expert in infectious diseases believes people may still have to be isolating after testing positive for coronavirus in a year's time. 

Paul Hunter, professor in medicine at the UEA, said he can foresee the rule continuing at least into next summer. 

As it stands, the public is required by law to self-isolate if they contract the virus or are contacted by NHS Test and Trace.

But, from next month, people will no longer need to quarantine if a contact registers a positive result. 

Shoppers around Norwich Market shopping local and staying safe in masks.Picture by: Sonya Duncan

People wearing face masks at Norwich Market - Credit: Sonya Duncan

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Despite the nation having reached so-called 'Freedom Day', Prof Hunter believes one crucial measure is here to stay for several more months. 

“I think if you have Covid, you will still be required to isolate for at least another year from now," he added.

By that time he said the vaccine will have reduced transmission substantially and for those that get the virus, the severity will be far lower.

"Looking at research which has examined the benefits of self-isolating when you get Covid, it is by and large the single most useful thing you can do.

“Even at the best of times, a lot of people have not been self-isolating when they should have.

Professor Paul Hunter, from the University of East Anglia. Picture: UEA

UEA professor Paul Hunter, who is an expert in infectious diseases - Credit: UEA

“There is a lot of confusion about the ‘pingdemic’, which was not about isolating. It was about quarantining because you’ve been exposed to someone who has the disease.  

“Recent rhetoric has conflated things and there is an impression you won’t need to isolate from August 16 if you get the virus - that is not the case."

Ahead of July 19, when the vast majority of the country's remaining restrictions ended, there had been fears in some quarters of a steep rise in cases. 

With data set to provide a clearer picture in the coming days, Prof Hunter is cautiously optimistic. 

Customers using Tesco Metro in Norwich wearing their masks.Byline: Sonya Duncan

It remains to be seen whether Covid lockdown restrictions will return in the months ahead - Credit: Sonya Duncan

"I have felt that some comments by my scientific colleagues - predicting impending disaster - have been overstated," he said. 

"On the one hand a lot of venues are opening but, on the other, schools are closed. There is a lot of uncertainty."

On the months ahead and the potential return of restrictions, he added: "What I am confident about is that we will not see a huge increase in cases as we move through the summer. 

“People will continue to be admitted to hospital and some will die, but probably not at the level we are seeing at the moment. 

King's Lynn town centre in lockdown. Picture: Ian Burt

King's Lynn town centre pictured during lockdown - Credit: Archant

“We will see an increased number of infections during the autumn - that is a given. The issue is how much that impacts hospitalisation.

“If we do see more restrictions, I think they will be fairly minimal compared to last year."

Whether curbs on daily life are reintroduced or not, MPs in the region believe the government should at least produce a plan of action.

Peter Aldous, MP for Waveney, said: "Ultimately, we must have some form of long-term strategy, but it needs to be flexible. 

MP Peter Aldous at the Save All Hallows Trust public meeting at Ditchingham Village Hall. PICTURE: J

Peter Aldous, MP for Waveney - Credit: Archant

"The roadmap we have just had worked reasonably well and it had that degree of flexibility - as we saw with the fourth stage. 

"It is clear the government sees self-isolating as an important element of containing Covid but, at the moment, the rules are a bit of a blunderbuss. They need to be more nuanced."

Key to preventing hospital admissions from rising is the vaccination programme. 

Around 92pc of patients in Norfolk and Waveney have had a single jab, while more than three quarters are double-dosed. 

Alan Muse, from Diss, receiving his COVID-19 vaccination at the new mass vaccination centre at Conna

A Covid vaccine being administered at Connaught Hall in Attleborough - Credit: Danielle Booden

But with some vulnerable members of society having received vaccines several months ago, Prof Hunter said a booster rollout will prove "critical". 

He added: "The number being hospitalised depends on how soon we get the next round of booster doses out.

“For the people who had their vaccines early on, the benefit will be on the wane by now. 

“In 10 years’ time I doubt we will be giving boosters against this. Once you've had your first natural infection, the chances of getting a serious disease next time are very low.

Nurse Maria Alexiou preparing COVID vaccinations at the new mass vaccination centre at Connaught Hal

A Covid vaccine being prepared at Connaught Hall in Attleborough - Credit: Danielle Booden

"In a decade, it will more likely just cause a common cold. We might not even be vaccinating people in five years’ time."

While keen to ensure older people stay protected, Clive Lewis, MP for Norwich South, insisted efforts should also be focused on helping poorer nations.

"I think we have to see booster jabs in the context of the global distribution of vaccines," said Mr Lewis.

"We were only meant to prioritise the vulnerable and health workers - then it was supposed to be about the global effort. 

MP for Norwich (South) Clive Lewis at the Fridays for Future climate protest on the steps of city ha

Clive Lewis, MP for Norwich South - Credit: Archant

"Some countries have vaccinated only a small percentage, so us talking about a third jab seems a real slap in the face."