Boris Johnson risks “fanning the flames” of a new wave of coronavirus infections if he lifts lockdown restrictions too quickly, a scientist advising the Government has warned.
The Prime Minister is expected to announce on Monday that the final stage of easing controls in England – slated for June 21 – is to be put on hold for up to four weeks amid a surge in cases of the Delta variant first identified in India.
The move has angered some senior Tories, who have said there is no justification for another “catastrophic” delay to so-called “freedom day” when social distancing finally comes to an end.
However, Professor Andrew Hayward, a member of the Nervtag group which advises ministers on new respiratory diseases, said it was clear the country was facing a “substantial” third wave of the disease.
He said the key issue was the extent to which that led to more people becoming seriously ill and requiring hospital treatment.
“We still don’t know how bad it could be,” he told BBC’s The Andrew Marr Show.
He said it was “extremely worrying” that the Delta variant – which now accounts for 96% of new infections – was proving to be 60% more transmissible than the previously dominant Alpha strain first identified in Kent.
“That is the thing that will drive the speed with which the next wave comes along,” he said.
“I think if we were to open up more that would really fan the flames and lead to this increasing even faster.”
Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab said ministers and officials were monitoring the data in “real time” to determine when it would be safe to open up.
He said they were in a “race” to get the second dose of the vaccine – which has been shown to provide significantly greater protection against the Delta variant than a single jab – to as many people as possible.
“We know that we have made great progress in weakening the link between transmission and hospitalisation. The question is whether we have severed and broken it,” he told The Andrew Marr Show.
He said that if the unlocking was to be “irreversible”, they needed to proceed “carefully and cautiously”.
“We don’t want to yo-yo back in and out of measures,” he said.
Pressed later on Times Radio, Mr Raab refused to rule out the possibility that restrictions could stay in place beyond the end of July.
“We want to be irreversible so we have just got to be careful that we are there in terms of data,” he said.
Polling by Opinium suggested broad public support for the Government’s approach, with 54% in favour of a delay and 37% against.
Professor Stephen Reicher, a member of the Spi-B group of behavioural scientists advising ministers, said the findings gave the lie to claims there was a limit to the restrictions the public would accept.
“The truth of this pandemic is not that we have a Government that wants to act, held back by a weak public,” he told Times Radio.
“We have a public that understands what needs to be done, is following the science and yet is held back by a Government that isn’t prepared to take action.”
There was frustration among some Conservative MPs – already unhappy over the impact on the economy and on civil liberties – at the prospect of further delay.
Writing in The Mail on Sunday, Sir Graham Brady, the influential chairman of the backbench Tory 1922 Committee, said that it must be the final time.
“On any reasonable assessment we should be still on target for lifting restrictions on June 21,” he wrote.
“There is no excuse for this further catastrophic delay. It is unacceptable to restrict people’s most fundamental rights. And it must never ever happen again.”