The end of lockdown rules is an “experiment” and restrictions may need to return this winter, a SAGE expert has admitted.
Prof Neil Ferguson, whose dire death models prompted the first lockdown last year, said Boris Johnson is taking a “slight gamble” by axing almost all England’s Covid laws on July 19.
While the Imperial College London scientist said he broadly supported the unlocking, he said Covid rules may have to return.
He told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme: “This is a slight gamble, it’s a slight experiment at the moment. I think it’s justifiable and I’m reasonably optimistic.
“[But] policy will have to remain flexible.
“If we end up in something close to the worst-case scenario, we and other groups are looking at, which I think is unlikely but can’t be ruled out, then yes, there may need to be some sort of course correction later.”
He added: “At the peak of the second wave 50,000 cases would translate into something like 500 deaths, but that’s going to be much lower this time, more like 50 or so.
“The challenge is, there’s still the potential of getting very large numbers of cases and so if we get very high numbers of cases a day, 150,000 or 200,000 it could still cause some pressure to the health system.
“This is a slight gamble, it’s a slight experiment at the moment, and I think it’s justifiable and I’m reasonable optimistic, but policy will have to remain flexible.”
Health Secretary Sajid Javid also admitted restrictions could have to return this winter – despite Boris Johnson previously claiming the end of lockdown would be “irreversible”.
He hinted at local lockdowns by pointing out councils will retain powers until September, and possibly beyond.
Mr Javid told Sky News today: “There is a risk, I think it’s a real risk of some kind of vaccine resistant variant.
“There’s no sign of that yet anywhere but I think it’s something no one can rule out. And that’s why it’s sensible to retain some powers.”
Face masks, social distancing, QR codes and ordering at a table in pubs will no longer be a legal requirement from July 19 in England in a bonfire of Covid laws.
People will be advised they can continue wearing masks on public transport but it will not be a requirement. It will not even be a legal requirement in hospitals and care homes.
The move has prompted outrage from disability groups, who say vulnerable people will end up shunning public transport.
Mr Javid today admitted cases could hit 100,000 a day this summer – surpassing their all-time recorded peak in the UK at Christmas last year.
He insisted: “What matters more than anything is hospitalisation and death numbers – and that is where the link is being severely weakened.”
But in advice to government published last night, SAGE scientists warned: “There is significant risk in allowing prevalence to rise, even if hospitalisations & deaths are kept low by vaccination.
“If it were necessary to reduce prevalence to low levels again…then restrictive measures would be required for much longer.”
Scientists said lower infection rates would reduce the impact of “long Covid” on the NHS, and allow more capacity to be used for routine care.
They suggested maintaining measures intended to minimise the spread of the virus – such as masks and social distancing – would make it easier to spot outbreaks “in advance of them growing large”.