Britain could face another coronavirus wave as big as the current one if lockdown restrictions were all lifted, a scientist advising the Government says.
Professor Steven Riley, a member of the Spi-M modelling group, has said the rollout of the vaccination programme did not mean coronavirus controls could be dropped.
It comes as Boris Johnson prepares to announce his lockdown exit strategy for England on February 22, with the first stage expected to be the reopening of schools, possibly staggered, from March 8.
The Government’s scientific advisers are calling for a cautious route out of the third national lockdown after No10 was criticised last year for waiting too long to impose the previous shutdowns and then easing restrictions too swiftly.
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As scientists argue that case numbers are still too high for a significant loosening of restrictions, the Prime Minister is facing calls from Tory sceptics to ease the lockdown once the pressure on the NHS eases and deaths drop.
Speaking to BBC Radio 4’s Today programme, Professor Riley, an infectious disease expert from Imperial College London, said: “No vaccine is perfect. We are certainly going to be in the situation where we can allow more infection in the community but there is a limit.
“In the short term 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 very good reason (and) those people who had the vaccine but unfortunately it didn’t give them the protection they need.
“I think scientists are genuinely worried. We don’t want to show that it is an excellent-not-perfect vaccine by having another large wave in the UK.
“If for some reason we were to choose to just pretend it (coronavirus) wasn’t here any more then there is the potential to go back to a wave that is a similar size to the one that we are in now.”
The chair of the NHS Confederation has expressed concern that the Government’s target date of March 8 for reopening schools in England is too early.
Lord Adebowale said the NHS workforce was “on its knees” and that ministers needed to be “very cautious” about any easing of coronavirus lockdown restrictions.
“We have to be really careful, really systematic about easing any lockdown. What we cannot afford is another peak,” he told Today.
“I understand the pressure to open schools. We need to do so very safely. I think mid or late-March is when we should be re-assessing.
“We have had a number of false dawns when we have set dates, taken the action, then find ourselves having to row back very quickly.”
While scientists advising the Government believe cases of Covid-19 are dropping at a decent pace across England, they have warned that infection levels remain high.
They believe that only by driving case numbers to much lower levels can NHS Test and Trace and surge testing work properly.
With low case numbers, clusters of cases can be identified more easily and new mutations to the virus can be picked up, one Government scientific adviser said.
They argued that loosening restrictions when cases are low means there is less chance of R going above 1, which leads to exponential growth of the virus, and this creates a quicker path back to normal life.
The current halving time of the virus (the time it takes to the number of new infections to halve in size) is thought to be at around 14 to 17 days.
Scientific advisers believe that if this continues, aided by the rollout of vaccines, then low case numbers can be achieved in the next two to three months.
Conservative former cabinet minister David Davis has called for a relaxation of controls on schools as part of a “stepwise” easing of coronavirus restrictions.
“I think we have got to do a stepwise change. I think we are going to have to relax the schools, that is the first thing to do. It is probably the lowest risk,” he told Today.
Mr Davis said the Government should adopt a “suck it and see” approach to easing controls – with a full lifting unlikely until later in the spring.
He added: “What I don’t want to see is yet more stop-start – relax it and then go back again, relax it and go back.
“We are unlikely to get full freedom until April/May or maybe even a touch later than that, but we have to start soon.”
Danny Altmann, professor of immunology at Imperial College London, said he agreed with the Health Secretary’s comments about the UK potentially living with coronavirus in the future in the same way as the flu.
Matt Hancock said he hoped Covid-19 will become a treatable disease by the end of the year.
Prof Altmann told Times Radio: “I agree with the “by the end of the year” part, I think the jury’s out on what the future will look like.”
On news of the number of coronavirus patients in hospitals going down, he said: “We’re all following the data in the UK and from Israel, who are a little bit ahead of the curve in terms of vaccinations, and seeing those transmission graphs absolutely being quashed.
“We can’t easily pick apart how much of that is lockdown, how much is vaccination, but it’s certainly both of those things.
“I am cautiously optimistic that we are winning finally.”