The next few weeks will be crucial in determining whether coronavirus restrictions in England can be lifted next month, experts have said.
Current data suggests that although hospital admissions are rising in some parts of the country affected by the Indian variant, overall admissions remain broadly flat.
Some experts on Friday argued that restrictions should remain in place until more of the population have received both vaccine doses, with Professor Christina Pagel, from University College London and a member of Independent Sage, saying reopening should be delayed for a few more months.
But the chief executive of industry body UK Hospitality, Kate Nicholls, said it was “absolutely critical” that the remainder of the hospitality sector is allowed to unlock on June 21.
Prime Minister Boris Johnson told reporters on Thursday he “didn’t see anything currently in the data” to divert from the June reopening target, adding: “But we may need to wait.”
Business Secretary Kwasi Kwarteng said on Friday “there’s nothing in the data that suggests to me that we should move the day” of June 21, when all legal limits on social contact are due to be lifted in England.
He told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme: “The caveat obviously is the data can change. So if scientific evidence data points to an increased hospitalisation rate, increased degree of risk, then we have flexibility to move that date.”
But he added: “As of today, as of the data I’ve seen, I didn’t think we will move the date.
“But I can’t guarantee that on May 28, you will appreciate I cannot guarantee that in three-and-a-half weeks’ time.”
Data for England published on Friday by the Office for National Statistics (ONS) shows an estimated one in 1,120 people in private households had Covid-19 in the week to May 22 – broadly unchanged from one in 1,110 in the previous week. The estimate for Scotland is around one in 630, up from one in 1,960.
Meanwhile, the reproduction number – the R value – for England is 1 to 1.1, compared to 0.9 and 1.1 the previous week.
The percentage of people testing positive continues to be low at 0.09%, but there are potential signs of an increase since early May, when the percentage was 0.07%, the ONS said.
The latest seven-day average for daily hospital admissions in England is 88 (up to May 25), which is an increase of 15% on seven days earlier.
The figure means hospital admissions are back to where they were at the start of May and remain 98% below the second-wave peak in January.
Public Health England (PHE) data shows that the majority of people with the Indian variant have not been vaccinated, with just 3% of cases (177 out of 5,599) from February 1 to May 25 having received both doses.
Of 201 people who ended up in A&E, just five people had had both vaccine doses, while 138 were unvaccinated and 45 had had their first dose more than three weeks previously.
Of 43 patients who needed to be admitted to hospital overnight, only one person had had both vaccines, the PHE data showed.
Over the period there were 12 deaths linked to the variant, of which eight were among the unvaccinated.
Dr Helen Wall, senior responsible officer for the Covid vaccine programme in Bolton, which is one of the hotspots for the variant, said there are “significant numbers of 30- and 40-year-olds” going into hospital there, and tens of thousands of people in the area who have only just become eligible for the vaccine.
But she told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme that hospitals were seeing patients who were far less sick than previous Covid patients.
“In terms of how ill they’re getting, I think the vaccine definitely seems to be working,” she said.
“We are not seeing, certainly not many people as sick as we would have done pre-vaccine, certainly the picture in hospital is much better to previous times when we’ve been at this position.”
Dr Mike Tildesley, from the University of Warwick and a member of the Scientific Pandemic Influenza Group on Modelling (Spi-M) group, told BBC Breakfast that cases will go up but the vaccines are proving to help.
He said: “We would expect, with these restrictions being lifted, at some point the R number would go above 1, and it looks like that’s probably what’s happening now, given that we’re starting to see cases going up.
“But the important thing for us is, given we now have the vaccines, we are in a very different place from, say, in October … Because hopefully the vaccines can help us along the way, and if we sort of kick the can down the road a little bit, we can allow the vaccines to help us and hopefully allow us ultimately to lift restrictions.”
He said experts needed to “gather as much evidence as we can over the next week or two” then “try to predict what we expect may happen should this June 21 relaxation go ahead”.
Professor Andrew Hayward, from University College London and a member of New and Emerging Respiratory Virus Threats Advisory Group (Nervtag), said cases of the Indian variant were doubling every week and “it only takes five or six doublings for that to get up to say a quarter million cases.”
He said if further easing was brought in “instead of doubling every week it’s likely to double more frequently than that of course, so I think there is a good argument for caution until such time as we’ve got a much higher proportion of the population double vaccinated”.
Fellow Nervtag member, Robert Dingwall, from Nottingham Trent University, told Times Radio it was “hard to see any reason” why June 21 could not go ahead, adding that those who currently catching Covid tended to be younger and would get less sick.
Asked whether hospital admissions could get out of hand, leading to local lockdowns, he said: “I think we’ve got to look quite carefully at what hospitalisation means.
“The anecdotes that the clinicians are coming up with is to say these are not really, really sick people like they were seeing in January, so more people who just need a little bit of extra help with breathing, they come in, they get oxygen and dexamethasone for maybe three or four days, and then they go home again.
“And in that sense I think hospitalisations may not be a very good indicator of the severity of these infections.”
He said there was a need to “break this link in our minds between ‘this is very transmissible, this spreads very easily’.. and ‘this is as dangerous as things were when the Wuhan virus first hit last spring'”.
Independent Sage (Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies) member Prof Pagel called for the road map for England to be delayed.
She told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme: “I think what’s demoralising is having a third wave.
“If we can just delay international travel, delay Stage 4 of the road map until we have a much higher proportion of people vaccinated with two doses, we’re in a much, much better position.
“We’re only two months away from that, it’s not long to wait. What I don’t want is for us to have new restrictions.”