Experts have urged caution over the easing of lockdown restrictions, warning that relaxing measures too early could lead to another surge in cases and threaten the NHS with collapse.
Steven Riley, a member of the Spi-M modelling group which advises the government, said that despite the success of the vaccine rollout, scientists were “genuinely worried” about the prospect of another wave.
“If we were to allow a very large wave of infection, that wave will find all the people who couldn’t have the vaccine for good reason, those people who had the vaccine but unfortunately didn’t give them the protection they need,” he told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme.
“Nearly 20% of the UK’s population is over 65 years or older. If you do some simple back-of-the envelope [calculations] for a vaccine that is very good but not perfect, there is the potential for another really substantial wave.”
Asked if that wave could be as large as the one the UK is currently emerging from, Riley said: “I don’t believe anyone expects we’re suddenly going to lift all the social restrictions … but if for some reason we did choose to just pretend it wasn’t here any more at some point then yes, there is the potential to go back to a wave that’s a similar size to the one we’re in now.”
It comes as reports circulate of a government “three-state plan” for reopening the economy, which could see pubs, hotels and restaurants in England reopening by Easter weekend, according to the I paper.
Citing a senior government official, the paper reported that Boris Johnson would allow the reopening of non-essential shops at the end of March if rates remained low, following the planned reopening of schools on 8 March.
There were also reports pubs would be allowed to serve outdoors in April if coronavirus infection rates continue to fall. However, scientists advising the government continue to urge caution, arguing that case numbers remain too high to allow any significant easing of the controls.
Lord Adebowale, a crossbench peer and chair of the NHS confederation which represents organisations delivering care across the UK, warned that the health service was “on its knees”, and that measures should only be eased when the NHS was confident it could cope.
“Almost a third of all patients who have needed hospital treatment for Covid since the pandemic began were admitted last month,” he said. “[We’ve] got 4.5 million people awaiting elective surgery, 10 million people have additional mental health issues and we have a workforce on its knees, so we have to be really careful, really systematic, about easing any lockdown”, warning that we “cannot afford” another peak.
Adebowale also said that while the vaccine rollout was “mission critical”, “hitting [rollout] targets is not a case of everything going back to normal”.
“Until everyone’s protected no one’s protected, and there [are] some real issues about who isn’t getting the vaccines at the moment. But also there’s no evidence any of the current Covid vaccines can completely stop someone being infected, and that has implications for achieving what’s called herd immunity.”
But the Conservative MP David Davis said the government should take a “suck it and see” approach to easing controls, and that the UK would eventually have to accept life with a number of coronavirus deaths each year, as with flu.
“What I don’t want to see is yet more stop-start – relax it and then go back again, relax it and go back,” he told the Today programme. “We are unlikely to get full freedom until April/May or maybe even a touch later than that, but we have to start soon.”