Any lifting of Covid restrictions this month will “fan the flames” of rising infections in England and could lead to similar levels as last winter’s second wave within two months, one of the government’s leading scientific advisers has said.
Prof Andrew Hayward, an adviser on the Sage and Nervtag committees, said the country should be slowing down rather than speeding up its return to normality, before an expected announcement by Boris Johnson on Monday of a delay to the final removal of lockdown restrictions, which was pencilled in for 21 June.
“I think we’ve got to be really cautious because there is still a substantial chance we could have a wave of hospitalisations that would put very substantial pressure on the NHS at a time that it’s really trying to deal with the enormous backlog of cases of people waiting for hospital care,” Hayward told BBC One’s The Andrew Marr Show on Sunday.
“If we are driving down a road and you are coming up to a bend and you’re quite not sure what’s around that bend but you think there might be something bad, you don’t put your foot on the accelerator,” Hayward said. “If anything you slow down, you don’t speed up. I think it’s analogous to that.”
Asked later by Marr whether the government could reimpose some restrictions to slow the spread of the new Delta variant, the foreign secretary, Dominic Raab, did not deny the possibility.
“We have weakened the link between transmission of the virus and hospitalisation, but the acid test is have we broken the link?” he said. “That’s the crux of it … We’re looking at the data all of the time.
“The race we’re in is to get everyone up to two doses [of vaccine] because that maximises the effectiveness both of the risk of harm to people and cutting the transmission.”
The government was expected to delay the final step to lift lockdown restrictions by two to four weeks, Downing Street sources said on Friday, with infection and vaccination data still being studied.
Seventy-eight per cent of the adult population have been vaccinated with one dose while 55% have had both doses.
Hayward, a University College London scientist, said the fact the new Delta variant appeared to be 60% more infectious was “extremely worrying” and “the fact that the level of hospitalisations from this infection appear to be up to maybe up to double those from the previous infection is of course also extremely concerning”.
“One of the key problems is the first dose of the vaccine really only reduces the risk of infection by about one-third so we really need both doses before we get to a good level of protection.”
“It’s now very clear we will have a substantial third wave of infections,” said Hayward. “The really big question is how much that wave of infections is going to translate into hospitalisations. The fact that we have 55% of the adult population double vaccinated means that this will be substantially less bad than it could have been but we still don’t know how bad it could be.”
Raab said he shared the anguish of people whose companies or employment could be ended by a delay to the timetable, but said: “We don’t want to be going back and forth, we want to deal with it irreversibly.”
Labour meanwhile said it believed it was “very unlikely that people will be able to go abroad this summer” and attacked the government’s failure to close the border sooner to travellers from India.
The shadow international trade secretary, Emily Thornberry, told Sky News: “You wonder why it was they kept the border open with India and closed the border with Pakistan and Bangladesh. I think it was because Boris Johnson continued with the fantasy that he was going to be allowed to go to India and sign some sort of pre-trade deal.”
“We must follow the scientific advice and the scientific advice is pretty clear we can’t have a lifting of the lockdown at the moment,” Thornberry said. “There needs to be a delay.”
Meanwhile, the former UK prime minister Gordon Brown accused the leaders of the G7, whose meeting in Cornwall concludes on Sunday, of an “unforgivable moral failure” for failing to commit more to global vaccination programmes.
“I think this summit will go down as a missed opportunity. When we needed 11bn vaccines we have only got offered a plan for 1bn,” he told Sky News. “We needed $50bn allocated to the vaccination of the world, when we only have $5bn.
“Now we have discovered the vaccine, we have not set out the comprehensive plan that will deliver vaccination by the middle of next year … Millions of people will go unvaccinated and thousands of people, I’m afraid, will die.”
He said the problem would come back to haunt the richest countries because even people who had been vaccinated in those territories could catch the virus because of mutations and variants.