Scientists are queueing up to plead with Boris Johnson to delay the planned end of lockdown on June 21.
The British Medical Association, experts and government advisors lined up today to warn ending all restrictions prematurely could lead to an explosion of cases.
Dr Lisa Spencer, honorary secretary of the British Thoracic Society, warned variant hotspots are like “volcanoes” that “could explode and send a massive gas plume across much more of the UK”.
Advisor to the government Prof Ravi Gupta, a member of SAGE subgroup NERVTAG, today declared the easing should be delayed for “probably a month”.
Prof Gupta – who yesterday warned Britain may already be in a third wave – told Sky News: “My personal opinion is I think it’s 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.
“It then gives us another four weeks’ worth of data to collect about how the virus is growing in the population.”
But fellow NERVTAG member Prof Robert Dingwall told Times Radio: “It’s not clear what the value of that would be and the critics can’t even agree on what sort of delay they’d like.
“It’s a couple of weeks, three or four weeks, a couple of months. At the margins, these things make very little difference.”
Ministers and officials are locked in talks over the B.1.617.2 strain, first found in India, amid speculation some lockdown rules – like mask-wearing – will have to remain.
A Tory minister today refused to say if Step Four of the government’s roadmap – which would lift all legal limits on indoor gatherings and reopen nightclubs – can go ahead as planned on June 21.
Paul Scully told LBC radio: “We do just need to be careful. We need to err on the side of caution. No decisions have been made – we’ll only do that based on the latest and most accurate data.”
The government will only confirm any changes on June 14 if the Covid response has met four key tests, including that a new variant does not risk a surge in cases.
The UK reported 3,383 new cases yesterday – the sixth day in a row the figure topped 3,000 – and the rolling average has risen from 2,597 to 3,345 in a week.
The rolling average of daily deaths has crept up from 5.7 to 8.3, and hospital admissions have also risen in recent weeks.
Vaccine second doses are being “surged” to the most vulnerable as officials hope everyone over 50 can be given a second dose by June 21.
But while the jab appears to reduce the risk of going to hospital with the B.1.617.2 strain it does not totally eliminate it.
Prof Gupta warned increased social activity following last month’s May 17 easing of restrictions – which allowed six people to meet indoors – could lead to “quite a lot” of hospital admissions.
He said while Britain had performed “amazingly well” in its vaccination programme, it was still too early “to put the vaccine straight up against the virus”.
He told ITV’s Good Morning Britain: “We must remember this is a virus that does adapt, and faced with vaccines it will eventually start to make mutations to avoid them even further, and then we could be in an even more precarious situation after that.”
He added: ”The key thing here is that we’re almost there.
“The problem is we don’t want to put the vaccine straight up against the virus at a time when the vaccine coverage isn’t quite high enough; it’s not in young people, it’s not in schoolchildren, and that’s where the virus may potentially start circulating.
“We still have a lot of vulnerable people in the community who haven’t responded to the vaccine.”
British Medical Association council chairman Dr Chaand Nagpaul urged the Government to “act with maximum caution when considering whether to go ahead with lifting restrictions on June 21”.
“We cannot afford to repeat past mistakes, which would result in greater levels of serious illness and loss of lives, including adding pressures to our overstretched NHS,” he said.
“The Government must hold off making a final decision on whether lockdown is fully lifted on June 21 until latest data can be scientifically considered – the Prime Minister had pledged he would be guided by ‘data not dates’, and it’s vital that he now honours this commitment.”
He added: “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. It would also add further demands on staff who are exhausted, both mentally and physically.”
Royal College of Emergency Medicine vice president Dr Adrian Boyle, warned that Britain faces a “perfect storm of hospitals just not having enough capacity”.
Easing restrictions could “be the sort of thing that actually tips some of these smaller hospitals really into a very disastrous situation”, he told Times Radio.
Dr Lisa Spencer, honorary secretary of the British Thoracic Society, told the BBC: “There are a few hotspots around the UK. These are areas where the variant first identified in India seem to be causing a majority of the infections, spreading quickly.
“These areas of the country represent mini-Covid volcanoes, that’s the problem. If we don’t handle these volcanoes carefully they could explode and send a massive gas plume across much more of the UK.”