COVID-19: Calls grow to postpone final step of England's roadmap out of lockdown as coronavirus cases rise

·4-min read

The final step of England's roadmap out of lockdown on 21 June should not go ahead until more adults have received two doses of a COVID-19 vaccine, a scientist has warned.

After daily infections rose above 4,000 for the first time since 1 April, Professor Christina Pagel, member of the Independent Sage group and director of operational research at University College London, told Sky News that the country didn't look "on course" for the planned reopening to go ahead.

"Unfortunately I don't think we're on course," she said. "The R-number is always based on data a couple of weeks old and the case rises in England this week have been quite high."

In the past week, the number of people with the variant first identified in India has doubled from 3,535 to 6,959 and overall coronavirus infections in England are growing by up to 3% every day.

The latest R (reproduction) number is estimated to be between 1.0 and 1.1 - up from between 0.9 and 1.1 last week, meaning that, on average, every 10 people infected with COVID will infect between 10 and 11 other people.

Earlier on Friday, Business Secretary Kwasi Kwarteng said there is nothing in the data to suggest England's next step might be delayed.

Mr Kwarteng said a final decision will not be made until 14 June, adding that it is "impossible for anyone to know what the situation will be like in a week or two weeks' time".

But Prof Pagel said the data was "staring them right in the face".

"We've seen the variant first identified in India has doubled every week since it first came at the end of March and that was at stage two of the roadmap," she said.

"We're now on stage three of the roadmap. The rises over the last couple of days are a combination of (the Indian) variant and the extra reopening we saw 10 or 11 days ago."

She said the variant is mostly concentrated in hotspots, but that could change as families go away for half-term, especially children, who are the biggest unvaccinated group.

Regarding 21 June, when all legal restrictions on social contact are due to be removed, she said: "I think they should delay it until we're at a much higher percentage of adults with two doses.

"They have accelerated the vaccine rollout over the last couple of weeks, which is really welcome, and the more we can accelerate that the better, but at the moment getting to maybe 75-80% of adults with two doses is looking like the end of August.

"I know that seems like a long time but I would prefer to wait under the freedoms we have now than risk losing those freedoms if we get a really bad third wave."

Prof Pagel is not the only expert to have voiced concerns.

UK Health Security Agency chief executive Dr Jenny Harries said on Thursday that she agreed with Imperial College scientist Professor Neil Ferguson when he said the next stage of the roadmap "hangs in the balance".

And Danny Altmann, a professor of immunology at Imperial College, told Sky News: "We really are balanced on a knife edge, but surely from all that we've all seen in the last 13 or 14 months we realise how unforgiving and relentless this virus is."

Kate Nicholls, chief executive of UK Hospitality, told Sky News that the 21 June reopening was "critical" for the industry, with millions of jobs depending on the move.

"Our pubs, bars, restaurants, hotels, many of whom are still haemorrhaging cash at the moment, even though they're open, will struggle to remain afloat for much longer - and critically, government support for the sector tapers away and starts to end from 1 July," she said.

"So those businesses will be struggling to stay afloat, and about a million jobs will be at risk, unless we can get government support extended until all those social distancing restrictions are lifted."

Emma Fernandes-Lopes, head of historic properties at English Heritage, told Sky News that tickets for next week's events at the organisation's sites are sold out.

She said: "It would obviously be devastating if we weren't able to continue operating our staff, our visitors love being here and enjoying the great outdoors. So we're hopeful that we can continue, but we are monitoring current government advice very carefully."

It comes as the government approves a fourth vaccine for use in the UK - the single dose Johnson & Johnson vaccine.

Vaccine minister Nadhim Zahawi said 20 million doses have been ordered and these will arrive later this year.

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