The Government should not “rush” into easing Covid-19 restrictions in England in July, but data is looking “encouraging”, an expert has said.
Earlier this month, concerns over the spread of the Delta variant led to Prime Minister Boris Johnson pushing back the June 21 target date to remove all legal limits on social contact to July 19.
Professor Sir Peter Horby, chairman of the New and Emerging Respiratory Virus Threats Advisory Group (Nervtag), said: “We always have to be driven by the data, not the dates.”
He told the the BBC’s Andrew Marr Show: “So we’re watching it very carefully and there will be a lot of analysis of the data coming up to that date, to make sure we’re comfortable with that release.
“At the moment, the data is encouraging that we can do that. But we have to make sure that we follow the data.”
Prof Horby, who is also professor of emerging infectious diseases in the Nuffield Department of Medicine, University of Oxford, said he would not bring the restrictions easing date forward, adding that it had been “very sensible” to delay it by four weeks.
“I don’t think we should rush into anything, we really want to make sure that we can release all restrictions and not have to backtrack at all,” he added.
Mr Johnson previously said there would be a two-week review after the June 14 delay announcement, with an update from the Government expected on Monday.
Prof Horby warned that Covid-19 vaccinations have “weakened” the link between infections and hospital admissions, but this was not “completely broken”, with “breakthrough infections” still expected.
“As we see increasing infections, we will see increasing hospitalisations,” he told The Andrew Marr Show.
“But at this stage, we’re able to make sure that the health system isn’t overwhelmed and vaccination is really key to that.”
He warned that the route out of the pandemic would be “a bumpy road out and that there will be twists and turns that we’re not wishing to see”.
His comments highlight that new Health Secretary Sajid Javid arrives in his role at a crucial juncture.
Mr Javid said his “most immediate priority” will be getting the country through the coronavirus pandemic, while opposition parties and health leaders have warned of a “perfect storm” hitting the NHS this winter, as the treatment backlog reaches more than five million patients.
On Sunday, NHS England said half of all adults under 30 in England had received a Covid-19 vaccine, with more than 4.2 million people aged 18 to 29 jabbed in three weeks.
Over the weekend, hundreds of walk-in vaccination sites, including at stadiums and shopping centres, opened in England as part of the “grab a jab” campaign to boost vaccine uptake.
The Government said that, as of 9am on Saturday, there had been a further 18,270 lab-confirmed Covid-19 cases in the UK, while a further 23 people had died within 28 days of testing positive for Covid-19 as of Saturday, bringing the UK total to 128,089.
Public health professor Linda Bauld told Trevor Phillips on Sky News that rising Covid-19 cases were a “cause for concern” but that the proportion of people requiring hospital treatment was “more positive news”.
She said: “The proportion of people going into hospital as a proportion of cases is far, far lower.
“For example at the beginning of this year it might have been 10-15% of people who would end up in hospital, now it’s about 5%.
“If that trend continues… then I think the Government is under a lot of pressure to stick with that date (July 19).
“But all the researchers and clinicians will be saying ‘let’s make sure the data is going in the right direction’ a week or two before then.”
Prof Bauld was asked whether there was a behavioural issue over putting the July 19 date “up in lights” and making it hard for the Government to change it.
She said: “I think the date thing is a problem. When you set a date like that people are looking forward to it. It’s a bit like going on holiday, you start to relax a bit before going on holiday, you anticipate it, you’re looking forward to it.
“I think people are thinking ‘if we’ve got that date it means we’re almost back to normal so if it’s almost back to normal, I might as well do these things now’.
“You can see from the ONS social impact survey that people’s compliance with distancing has declined, their contacts have gone up, of course, but more than we might have thought.”