The full lifting of restrictions in England should be delayed by a month beyond 21 June due to the impact of the Indian variant of coronavirus, a leading scientist advising the government has told Sky News.
Stage four of Boris Johnson’s roadmap for easing coronavirus rules – when the prime minister aims to remove all legal limits on social contact – is scheduled to take place from 21 June.
But there is growing doubt over whether the prime minister will be able to keep to that date due to the spread of the Indian variant – now renamed as the Delta variant by the World Health Organisation – within the UK.
Professor Ravi Gupta, a member of the New and Emerging Respiratory Virus Threats Advisory Group (Nervtag), told Sky News that a further easing of measures on 21 June was “a bit early”.
“I think we need at least a few weeks – probably a month until schools have closed, when the risk of transmission within schools falls during summer holidays,” he said.
“It then gives us another four weeks’ worth of data to collect about how the [Indian variant of the] virus is growing in the population, what sort of rate it is growing at, how it is doing relative to the previous strain B117.
“And also how effective our vaccines are against this new virus.
“All of that information is coming in weekly and it will enable us to build up a better picture whilst staying safe and maintaining the gains we made through that really painful three of four months we had.”
Prof Gupta, a professor of clinical microbiology of the University of Cambridge, warned the Indian variant offered a “real risk now of generalised transmission in young people who are not vaccinated and, of course, school age children as well as those who are vulnerable and haven’t responded to the vaccine”.
He added: “We’ve got to a really good position and the easing has been well done so far.
“But we’ve obviously got this complicating factor which is this new virus that was identified in India… which has a new set of properties that we did not anticipate happening.
“We really should be making sure we think about what we’re doing in the context of this new, unknown virus.”
Other scientists advising the government have also sounded warnings about the planned full reopening on 21 June.
Professor Adam Finn, a member of the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation (JCVI), has suggested going ahead with the 21 June reopening would be “a bad decision”.
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Meanwhile, British Medical Association (BMA) council chair Dr Chaand Nagpaul has said the country is at a “pivotal moment” in the fight against coronavirus.
“A premature ending of all legal restrictions which then resulted in a surge of infections would undermine our health service’s efforts to tackle the biggest level of backlog of care it has ever faced,” he said.
“It would also add further demands on staff who are exhausted, both mentally and physically.”
Dr Nagpaul called on the government to “hold off making a final decision on whether lockdown is fully lifted on June 21 until latest data can be scientifically considered”.
The Royal College of Nursing also urged caution on the 21 June reopening.
“As the NHS starts the road to recovery now is the time to take cautious steps and not take an unchecked leap to freedom,” said chief executive Pat Cullen.
“Taking the right steps now will prevent this from becoming a wave that could threaten the recovery we have all worked so hard to deliver.”
However, Nottingham Trent University’s Professor Robert Dingwall, who is also a member of Nervtag, told Times Radio there was “no realistic prospect of the NHS facing the sorts of pressures that it faced in January and February” as he suggested the government should “push on” with lockdown easing.
Small business minister Paul Scully told Sky News that ramping up the vaccination programme could yet see the 21 June reopening take place.
“We’re taking a careful view on where any increase in infections with the Indian variant are happening and that’s why we’re looking at surge testing in those areas and really making sure we’re getting on the front foot,” he said.
“But by accelerating the vaccination programme and making people get their second jabs… those vaccinations can help us break that cycle of people having to go to hospital if they get COVID.
“And that’s what’s going to keep us on the roadmap.”
The government has promised to announce a decision on whether the 21 June reopening will take place with a week’s notice – on 14 June.
And Mr Scully dismissed “speculation” ahead of that timetable, adding: “This isn’t fudge. What we’ve said is we’ll look at the data, we’ll make a decision by 14 June as to what’s happening on 21 June.
“Clearly, we know the fact that case numbers are going up. We do want to make sure we’ll only open up based on data not those dates.
“So we’ll use the latest information. This isn’t fudge, this is making sure that we just don’t speculate and that we use the latest information and the most accurate information to make a really, really important decision.”