England’s chief medical officer has warned MPs that revising the government’s roadmap to emerge from lockdown sooner than planned would risk a more serious third wave of Covid infections.
Prof Chris Whitty said he expected a surge of infections once restrictions were lifted but that exiting lockdown faster, when fewer people are vaccinated, would send more people into hospital and lead to more deaths.
The roadmap for emerging from lockdown includes a five-week pause between each major step to give scientists time to gather and analyse data. Whitty said he would “strongly advise” against moves to shorten that time in an effort to unlock sooner.
“It is really important that we do not give any impression that what we are expecting is this just goes away and there are no further deaths,” Whitty said. “That is not realistic and I think to pretend that to the British public would be completely wrong.”
A third wave could arrive in late summer or be pushed back into the autumn and winter, Whitty said, depending on how prevalent the virus was when the country unlocked and how effective the vaccine was, alongside other measures such as mask-wearing, hand-washing and test and trace.
The Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage) has said it takes four weeks to be sure of the impact of the most recent step in easing restrictions. Ministers then want to give businesses and other organisations a week’s notice of any changes to the roadmap.
While the vaccine rollout is going well in the UK, with a third of the population having received at least one shot, there are still many vulnerable people who will not be protected, either because they have not had the vaccine, or because the vaccine has not worked for them.
Experts on the modelling subgroup of Sage calculate that even under the most optimistic scenario, at least 30,000 more Covid deaths could occur in the UK.
“All the modelling suggests there is going to be a further surge that will find people either that have not been vaccinated, or where the vaccine has not worked, and some of them will end up in hospital and sadly some of them will go on to die, and that is the reality of where we are,” Whitty told MPs on the Commons science and technology committee.
“The modelling is just reflecting the fact that because this is such a common virus against a large number of people, even if you have a relatively small proportion of people still remain vulnerable, that still equates to a very large number of people overall.”
Under questioning from MPs, Whitty suggested it was highly unlikely that the situation would improve so dramatically in the coming weeks that major steps on the roadmap, such as reopening hospitality and meeting indoors, could be brought forward.
“It’s very easy to forget quite how quickly things can go bad if you don’t keep a very close eye on them,” he said. “What we don’t want to do is to accelerate into trouble and then have to reverse straight back out again, open things up and immediately close them down.”
On whether positive data on deaths and hospitalisations might enable ministers to unlock more swiftly than the roadmap states, Whitty said: “It’s pretty doubtful you’ll be in a position where you’ll be able to say these data look so fantastically better, please take more risks. I think that seems a very unlikely situation given how large these blocks of activity already are.”
Whitty, who gave evidence with the government’s chief scientific adviser, Sir Patrick Vallance, said allowing indoor mixing of up to six people – a measure pencilled in for 17 May – involved “significant risks”. He said he would “strongly advise” against efforts to “concertina” the five-week pause between steps, adding that the 12 April move to reopen shops and outdoor hospitality was “a very big block” of activity.
Meanwhile, the chancellor, Rishi Sunak, disputed a suggestion by an unnamed government science adviser quoted in the Times that his push to reopen the economy, such as with the “eat out to help out” scheme, made him “responsible for the second wave” that resulted in a second lockdown being ordered in England.
He was accused by Bridget Phillipson, the shadow chief secretary to the Treasury, of refusing to “follow the science by pitting public health against the economy”, which she claimed “led to worse outcomes for both”. Sunak said she should “be a little bit careful about what she reads in the newspapers”, and insisted he and other ministers did follow the scientific advice they received. “Evidence was finely balanced and there were many things for ministers to consider,” he told the Commons during Treasury questions on Tuesday.