Experts – including government scientific advisers – have urged against lifting England’s coronavirus lockdown restrictions on 21 June, warning: “We don’t want to go backwards”.
It comes amid reports that lockdown easing will be delayed by four weeks.
Dr Mike Tildesley, a member of the SPI-M modelling group, said on Saturday that a four-week delay would give scientists the opportunity to assess the link between rising coronavirus cases and hospital admissions.
“We are starting to see early signals that hospital admissions are going up but it is just slightly unclear exactly how much we may expect them to go up over the next couple of weeks given the vaccines are playing a very key role,” he told the BBC Radio 4 Today programme.
“Of course [the vaccines] are not 100% perfect so we need to be cautious. We don’t want to go backwards when it comes to control, we don’t want to be slipping into another lockdown.”
The UK has recorded its highest weekly rate of coronavirus cases since early March. In the seven days to Friday, there were 45,895 new cases in the UK – a 58.1% rise on the previous seven days. In the same period there were 61 deaths, a 10.9% rise on the previous week.
Government sources told the Guardian on Friday that the lifting of lockdown restrictions in England was likely to be delayed for up to a month as cases rise at their fastest rate since the winter wave.
The prime minister is scheduled to make an announcement on Monday after a “quad” meeting between Boris Johnson and three senior ministers that is expected to take place over the weekend.
Prof Peter Openshaw, another scientist advising the government and a member of the Nervtag advisory group, urged caution with regards to lifting lockdown measures amid the emergence of the Delta variant, saying it was time to “double down”.
“It is such a disappointing setback that there is another variant that seems even more successful than the previous variants. This Delta variant seems to be about 60% more transmissible than [the Alpha variant],” he told Today.
“So it really has gone up another gear and that means that we really have to double down and not lose all the advantage that has been gained by the massive effort that has been put in so far.”
With hospitalisations “doubling”, Prof Tom Solomon, the director of the Health Protection Research Unit in Emerging and Zoonotic Infections at the University of Liverpool, said restrictions should be maintained for another month until more people are vaccinated.
“The numbers are small but they are doubling approximately every seven days – and so if you then suddenly say we are going to open up completely, we may end up with the hospitals overwhelmed again,” he told BBC Breakfast.
“So I think, unfortunately, we are just going to have to maybe give it another month until we have so many more people vaccinated.”
The Foreign Office minister, James Cleverly, said it was “key that we don’t trip up, potentially at the final hurdle” and that restrictions are eased safely.
“The point we’ve made right at the start of this progressive easing of lockdown is that we’ll be guided by the scientific evidence. This will be based on data rather than just on dates,” he told Times Radio.
But the Labour shadow home secretary, Nick Thomas-Symonds, said the country was now paying the price for ministers’ refusal to listen to warnings from the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage).
“Any delay in rolling back restrictions would be a huge blow for many families and businesses across the country. The fault for this lies squarely with Conservative ministers,” he said.