A top Government adviser says there are some arguments for lifting coronavirus lockdown restrictions sooner in England, but there could be a third wave.
Dr Mike Tildesley, a member of the Spi-M modelling subgroup of Sage, said some figures suggest Boris Johnson’s roadmap, which calls for all restrictions to end as early as June 21, could be “sped up”.
Still, he and other experts have warned there could be a “resurgence” of Covid-19 infections as society is unlocked and more social mixing is permitted.
Dr Tildesley, a professor of infectious disease modelling at the University of Warwick, said the Government should be “cautious” after England moves to Step 2 and reopens places such as non-essential shops, pub beer gardens, hairdressers and beauty salons, libraries and zoos.
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It comes after a paper from experts at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine (LSHTM) suggested that lifting restrictions in the next stage of the road map “may lead to a small surge of cases and deaths”.
Their modelling suggested that stage four in June, when restrictions are expected to be lifted completely, could “lead to a larger surge of cases and deaths comparable to that seen during the first wave”.
They cautioned their findings were “preliminary” and made “pessimistic assumptions” about the later stages of the road map.
And scientists at the University of Warwick also shared a similar conclusion that a “distinct third wave of infection” would arise due to the current rate of planned unlocking, with hospital admissions peaking between late July and mid-August.
Minutes from the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage) meeting on March 31 said there could be resurgences in hospital admissions “of a similar scale to January 2021 after later stages of the road map”.
Dr Tildesley warned “there may well be” a third wave in the UK but probably not as high as some modelling predicts.
He told LBC: “I was really pleasantly surprised that when schools open we have managed to keep things in check, so I think… if these numbers keep going down over the next few weeks there certainly is an argument to say ‘well actually we’re doing really well with the road map, it could be sped up.’
“I would say I would want to be a little bit cautious over the next few weeks as we get beyond this April relaxation to monitor that just to be really sure that cases are continuing to go down.”
He added: “Now I will say that if things keep going down at the rate that they are then there certainly is an argument for speeding up the process, but we do know that the later relaxations, particularly the May one when people can stay in each other’s homes for the first time for a long period of time, we might expect that could cause a… quite significant rise in mixing and potentially a rise infections which is why this monitoring is really needed.”
Dr Tildesley said a third wave of Covid may not have a peak as high as some modelling predicts.
He said: “I think we do have very high levels of vaccination now, we do need to remember this, we are protecting our vulnerable.
“But the vaccines are not 100% protective so when we switch from an R number less than 1 that we have at the moment, to a lot of mixing later on, we may get a resurgence.
“I don’t expect we will have a resurgence of the same scale that we saw in January.
“So then there needs to be some very serious questions asked. If we do see a rise in cases, if we do start to see hospital occupancy go up a little bit, are we going to put in controls or is it something that we’re just going to try to manage with local testing and so forth?
“I think that’s the question the Government are going to potentially have to answer as we get towards the summer.”
Former chief scientific adviser to the Government, Professor Sir Mark Walport, told BBC Breakfast “very good progress” was being made on the road map but a third wave was possible if the brakes are taken off completely.
He said: “It’s clear that we’re making good progress along the road map, and it’s entirely appropriate that the first set of restrictions are being relaxed so that makes very good sense indeed.
“But we’re a long way from taking the brakes off completely. The vaccine rollout is going incredibly well… we’ve seen deaths fall fairly precipitously… all very good news, but we’ve only got to look across the Channel and see that France currently has over 39,000 new cases a day, so the virus is still very much around and if we take all the brakes off, then it’s quite clear that there is a very substantial risk of a further wave of infection.”
He said that by June “the numbers are going to be really important here”.
He added: “This is driven by data, and it’s been data not dates throughout, so these are projections.
“What the Spi-M modelling has shown is that even with a pretty effective vaccine, it’s not perfect, not everyone will be vaccinated, and there will still be quite a few people by June who aren’t immune, and that creates the setting for potentially another wave.
“It’s likely to be different from the first one because we know that the vaccines are very good at keeping people out of hospital and stopping people dying. And that’s why it’s important to really focus on what the data at the time are actually showing.”
It could take a few years to get back to normal completely, Sir Mark said.
Asked how long social distancing and face masks might be part of people’s lives, he said: “We’ve lived with flu for many years, and we are unfortunately going to have to live with coronavirus, but we know that over time it will change its relationship with us in the sense that more humans will be immune.”
He said flu in a bad year can kill up to 20,000 people “and so, unfortunately, this is another of the infections that particularly kills more vulnerable, elderly people.
“I suspect we’re going to have to live with some measure of social restrictions at least throughout this year, and we’ll see, hopefully next year we’ll be more and more normal, and in a couple of years we should return to complete normality.”
He said “the issue with international travel is that we do need to hold back importations of some of the strains that may be able to resist the vaccine, and that is very important.
“We’re never going to be able to keep them out completely and, indeed, we know that the South African strain is here in very small numbers.
“But nevertheless we need to give as long as possible for the vaccines to be adapted so that they can deal with future variants as they emerge, and new variants will continue to emerge all around the world.”