SAGE advisers today called for June 21 ‘freedom day’ to be delayed ‘for several weeks’ amid rising cases of the Indian variant.
Professor Susan Michie, who sits on the SPI-B subgroup, sounded the alarm warning Britain was perched on a ‘knife edge’ because infections had risen 40 per cent in just seven days — endangering plans to ditch all social distancing.
The University College London health psychologist said the country was running the risk cases could go the same way as in December.
‘Either it could run away as it did before Christmas, which would be extremely serious and we’d have more restrictions, or it could be contained,’ she told Sky News.
Cambridge microbiologist Professor Ravi Gupta today echoed her calls, urging ministers to delay plans to ditch the last burdensome restrictions by ‘several weeks’.
The scientist, who sits on the powerful NERVTAG committee, said cases — which broke through 4,000 on Friday for the first time in almost two months — could become ‘quite explosive’ over the next few months.
He added high vaccine coverage meant the third wave would likely take longer to spiral out of control than previous waves.
But he described this as a ‘false sense of security’, saying it was inevitable hospitalisations and death rates would eventually start to climb.
Environment Secretary George Eustice said the Government ‘couldn’t rule anything out’ when asked if June 21 ‘freedom day’ could be pushed back. Vaccines Minister Nadhim Zahawi yesterday admitted a delay was possible.
Boris Johnson’s roadmap is set to see the remaining restrictions — including burdensome face masks and social distancing — relaxed on June 21 ‘freedom day’.
But Government sources have hinted the chance of this going ahead is now ’50 – 50′ because of rising case numbers.
Ministers are not set to make a final decision on whether to go ahead with the last stage until June 14, but reports suggest contingency plans for a delay are already being drawn up in Whitehall.
The Prime Minister has repeatedly promised he will be led by ‘data not dates’, and said his easings roadmap will be ‘irreversible’.
Some 39.2million Britons had received at least one dose of the Covid vaccine, the Department of Health said yesterday, or more than three in five adults.
This map shows how Covid cases changed across the country in the week up to May 23, the latest available. It indicates infections rose fastest in parts of London and the North West where the Indian variant is dominant, but that they are also rising in other areas
Professor Ravi Gupta, who sits on NERVTAG, was speaking in a personal capacity when he urged ministers to slow down lockdown easings. Professor Susan Michie, who sits on the SPI-B subgroup, warned Britain was perched on a knife edge and running the risk of cases going the same way as at Christmas
Environment Secretary George Eustice today warned he could not rule anything out when asked whether the June 21 ‘freedom day’ could be delayed
OVER-50s set to have received both Covid jabs by June 21
The race to double jab millions of over-50s by June 21 is likely to be won as it emerges the NHS drive should be on target to get second doses to the most vulnerable in time for ‘Freedom Day’.
Vaccines Minister Nadhim Zahawi yesterday set a deadline for the first time amid increasing concern over the Indian variant, which is highly transmissible and causing a third surge of the virus ahead of ‘unlockdown’.
Around 5 million people aged over 50 are currently waiting for their second dose, with the NHS needing to vaccinate 225,000 of them every day to meet the target.
But second jabs were handed out at a rate of 400,000 a day most days last week, meaning it would take something catastrophic to knock the drive off course.
Ministers hope that by hitting the target, they won’t have to extend restrictions – such as the use of face masks – beyond the ‘unlockdown date’, which Boris Johnson has set for three weeks’ time.
Analysis by the Times now suggests that the new aim should be met if NHS England continues to give second doses to 1.5 million over-50s each week.
The paper said that at the present rate of inoculation, everyone in that age group should be fully vaccinated by the week ending June 20.
NHS England chief Sir Simon Stevens yesterday urged the over-50s to bring forward their second jab if asked.
‘The vaccine is our most effective weapon against coronavirus and the best way of protecting yourself and loved ones, so if you do one thing this bank holiday weekend, book your lifesaving jab and crucially, if you’re contacted by the NHS to do so, bring forward your second dose of vital protection,’ he said.
Professor Michie urged Britons to take extra precautions today amid rising infections in the country.
‘Everybody’s behaviour could potentially make the difference,’ she warned.
‘So the key thing at the moment is for people to do their socialising outdoors, and if people are inside, make sure windows and doors are open.’
Professor Gupta insisted: ‘If you look at the costs and benefits of getting it wrong, I think it is heavily in favour of delay, so I think that’s the key thing.
‘Yes, we will learn to live with it but this date that was set did not take into account the fact we would have a new variant on the horizon, with properties that allow it to evade antibodies to some extent and a virus which is more transmissible.’
Speaking in a personal capacity on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme, he said: ‘I think the problem is we are not too far from reaching the sort of levels of vaccination that would help us contain the virus.
‘I think that people are not saying we should abandon the June 21 date altogether but just to delay it by a few weeks while we gather more intelligence and we can look at the trajectory in a clearer way.’
Mr Eustice told told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme: ‘The Prime Minister has said all along that he is going to take this one step at a time and will only make the judgement on the next step, on June 21, about a week before that.
‘I think he is excepted to say something in a couple of weeks’ time on June 14.
‘The rates are going up again slightly but from a low base and probably to be expected, given there are a significant number of younger people who are now out and mixing but haven’t had the vaccine – I suppose that is to be expected.
‘But the right thing to do in a couple of weeks’ time is to assess that data before deciding what we can do.’
Asked whether businesses should prepare for a delay to the unlocking, Mr Eustice replied: ‘I’ve said all along, as has Matt Hancock and the Prime Minister, we can’t rule anything out because we know this has been a difficult pandemic, a dynamic situation.
‘We have to make that judgement a couple of weeks before. It will only be by then that we will see the full impact of the latest easements we made on May 17, so I know everyone wants to know what is going to happen but we can’t actually make that judgement until we see the impact of the easements just made.’
Daily coronavirus cases have risen by nearly 40 per cent in a week to 3,240 as deaths rose by 20 per cent while more than 537,000 vaccinations were carried out in England yesterday amid fears of the spread of the Indian variant
It came as France said British travellers must have a ‘compelling reason’ to visit the country as President Emmanuel Macron battles to suppress the Indian variant.
Travel from the UK will only be permitted for EU nationals, French residents or those travelling for essential reasons such as bereavement or childcare.
Those who are allowed to make the journey must take a pre-departure Covid test and quarantine for seven days on arrival.
The British Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office said the new French rules apply to all air, car, ferry and train passengers.
France is currently listed as an ‘amber’ destination by the UK Government, which means people are being advised against travelling there – while those who do must self-isolate for 10 days and take two tests on return.
Stricter rules for visitors from the UK were first raised by French foreign minister Jean-Yves Le Drian last week amid concern over the Indian variant.
An explanation of the new rules on the website of the Consulate General of France in London said: ‘Given the development of the so-called Indian variant, health measures have been tightened for people travelling to France from the UK.’
It added that from this morning ‘compelling reasons will be required for foreign nationals outside the EU not resident in France to travel to France from the UK’.
The website said ‘a PCR or antigen test less than 48 hours old will be required from anyone travelling to France from the UK’ while on arrival ‘travellers are obliged to self-isolate for seven days’.
The information added that ‘due to the low incidence of coronavirus in the UK, for the moment they will not be subject to systematic checks where they are staying’.
France’s move follows Austria, which said on Tuesday it was banning UK direct flights and tourists, and Germany, which said on Friday that anyone entering from the UK would have to quarantine for two weeks on arrival.