Lockdown easing should be delayed by a few weeks as Britain could already be mired in a third coronavirus wave, a Government adviser has warned.
Professor Ravi Gupta, a Cambridge University microbiologist who sits on Whitehall’s New and Emerging Respiratory Virus Threats Advisory Group (Nervtag), blamed the Indian variant for fuelling a fresh surge of infections.
He backed delaying step four of Boris Johnson’s lockdown roadmap, due for June 21, by “a few weeks” to tackle the rise in disease.
Environment Secretary George Eustice said the Government would not rule anything out but stressed it was too early to make a decision.
The Government is facing growing calls from scientists to push back the final stage of unlocking, which would see remaining restrictions of social contact lifted.
Shuttered businesses such as nightclubs would also be allowed to open under the plan.
But a surge in cases of the Indian variant in hotspots across the country has triggered alarm from some experts.
The number of Covid cases between May 24 and May 30 – 22,474 – was 26.8% higher than the previous seven days.
Prof Gupta told the BBC: “There has been exponential growth in the number of the new cases and at least three-quarters of them are the new variant.
“Of course the numbers of cases are relatively low at the moment – all waves start with low numbers of cases that grumble in the background and then become explosive, so the key here is that what we are seeing here is the signs of an early wave.
“It will probably take longer than earlier waves to emerge because of the fact that we do have quite high levels of vaccination in the population, so there may be a false sense of security for some time, and that’s our concern.”
Prof Gupta said vaccination rates were “not too far” from the levels needed to contained the virus but urged caution of lifting restrictions.
He said: “I think that people are not saying we should abandon the June 21 date altogether but just to delay it by a few weeks while we gather more intelligence and we can look at the trajectory in a clearer way.
“If you look at the costs and benefits of getting it wrong, I think it is heavily in favour of delay, so I think that’s the key thing.
“Yes, we will learn to live with it but this date that was set did not take into account the fact we would have a new variant on the horizon, with properties that allow it to evade antibodies to some extent and a virus which is more transmissible.”
The PM is expected to confirm whether June 21 freedoms will go ahead on June 14, as officials pore over the data.
The impact of any new variants is one of the key factors the decision will be based on.
Mr Eustice told BBC: “We can’t rule anything out. We know this has been a difficult pandemic, a dynamic situation.
“We have to make that judgement a couple of weeks before. It will only be by then that we will see the full impact of the latest easements we made on May 17.”