Next COVID surge will cause significant number of deaths this year, warns Chris Whitty

Watch: Professor Whitty warns against opening up 'too fast'

Chris Whitty has warned “significant numbers” of people will still die from coronavirus later this year – even as millions are vaccinated.

England’s chief medical officer was quizzed about a Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage) forecast of at least 30,000 more COVID-19 deaths by June next year “under the most optimistic" modelled scenarios for lifting lockdown.

Asked why this will be the case when most deaths so far have been in older age groups – who will be the first to be fully vaccinated – Prof Whitty insisted: “These are not ridiculous numbers.”

Prof Whitty, appearing at the House of Commons science and technology committee on Tuesday, explained:

  • Some people who are fully vaccinated will still go on to develop “significant disease” because the vaccines are not 100% effective

  • Some people will choose not to – or are unable to – get a jab

  • Some people in lower age groups are also at high risk

Professor Chris Whitty, Chief Medical Officer for England, giving evidence to the Science and Technology Committee on the subject of UK Science, Research and Technology Capability and Influence in Global Disease Outbreaks. Picture date: Tuesday March 9, 2021. (Photo by House of Commons/PA Images via Getty Images)
Chris Whitty has warned 'significant numbers' of people will still die from coronavirus later this year. (House of Commons/PA Images via Getty Images)

He told MPs: “The modelling is just reflecting the fact that because this is such a common virus and gets to large numbers of people, even if you have a relatively small proportion of people still remain vulnerable, that still equates to a very large number of people overall.”

Prof Whitty suggested he is expecting a “further surge” in COVID cases either in the summer or autumn going into winter.

The government's "road map" out of England's lockdown began on Monday with the reopening of schools and people being allowed to socialise with one other person outdoors.

Watch: Boris Johnson says return to school 'prudent' amid fears over increased risk

Boris Johnson aims to have removed all restrictions by 21 June but Prof Whitty warned the virus “will find the people who have either not been vaccinated or where the vaccine has not worked".

He added: “These will be significant numbers of people who will be dying, just as in any given flu year.

“An average flu year, 79,000 people will die… these are not ridiculous numbers, they are perfectly reasonable numbers for a significant respiratory virus that is affecting very vulnerable citizens even when vaccinated.”

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With Johnson having pointed out on Monday that thousands of people are still in hospital with COVID, Prof Whitty also told MPs the situation could “turn bad” very quickly if a close eye is not kept on it.

“I think a lot of people may think that this is all over," he said.

“I would encourage them to look at what is happening in continental Europe at the moment where a lot of countries are going back into rates going up and having to close things down again."

Following Prof Whitty's warnings about a future surge, the prime minister's official spokesman stressed the lockdown will be eased “gradually”.

“We are gradually in a very cautious way moving through the road map so that we have the time between steps to look at the impact lifting restrictions has had.

"The PM has been clear it is a cautious road map but he wants it to be irreversible.”

Watch: How England is leaving lockdown