Scientists advising the government have warned against lifting all remaining coronavirus restrictions in England on June 21, as fears grow over the continued spread of the B.1.617.2 variant first identified within India.
Professor Ravi Gupta, a member of the New and Emerging Respiratory Virus Threats Advisory Group, said there had been an “exponential growth in the number of new cases” sparked by the new variant and urged the government to delay the June unlocking by “a few weeks”.
“Of course the numbers of cases are relatively low at the moment”, he told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme. “All waves start with low numbers of cases that grumble in the background and then become explosive, so . . . what we are seeing here is the signs of an early wave”.
With up to three quarters of all new cases now involving the B.1.617.2 variant, Gupta argued that more data were needed before lifting further restrictions. Under the government’s road map, all legal restrictions on social contact are to be removed from June 21.
“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”, he said. “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.”
Professor Adam Finn, a member of the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation also urged caution over the lifting of restrictions, stating: “I think it’s unfortunate that everyone’s got this particular date in their head, because really what we need to do is understand how things are going and adjust accordingly.
“What we’ve done wrong in the past is left it too late and delayed making decisions, ultimately pushed them back and then ended up with large waves of infection”, he told ITV’s Good Morning Britain.
Ministers are now aiming to vaccinate all over-50s with both doses of the jab before the proposed June unlocking.
The latest vaccine push comes as data from Public Health England indicated that two doses of the vaccine were needed in order to receive the maximum protection against the B.1.617.2 variant.
PHE data showed that two doses of the BioNTech/Pfizer vaccine were 88 per cent effective, while two doses of the Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccine were 60 per cent effective. One dose of either vaccine was only 33 per cent effective against the variant.
Environment minister George Eustice on Monday said that a final decision on the planned lifting would be announced to the public on June 14.
The government’s Scientific Pandemic Influenza Group on Modelling is expected to present additional data to ministers later this week, outlining the impact of lifting restrictions on the number of infections.
“We can’t rule anything out, because we know this has been a difficult pandemic, a dynamic situation”, Eustice told the BBC. “We have to make that judgment a couple of weeks before, it will only be by then that we see the impact of the latest easements we made on 17 May”.