Tens of thousands could die if lockdown eased too soon, COVID expert warns

Watch: ICL professor warns against early lockdown lifting

Tens of thousands of people could still die from coronavirus despite the successful vaccine rollout if lockdown is eased too soon, an expert has warned.

With 15 million people in the government's top four priority groups offered a jab, thoughts have turned to easing some restrictions in the coming weeks.

Conservative MPs have pressured Boris Johnson to lift all legal limitations by the end of April.

But epidemiologist Professor Azra Ghani warned ITV that limits to vaccine efficacy and take up could result in many more deaths.

She said if only 90% of people are vaccinated and vaccines prevent 90% of deaths, then just 81% of the population is protected.

A woman walks past the Government's 'Stay Home, Save Lives' Covid-19 publicity campaign poster in London, as the number of cases of the mutated variant of the SARS-Cov-2 virus continues to spread around the country. (Photo by Dinendra Haria / SOPA Images/Sipa USA)
Modelling shows there could be tens of thousands of more COVID-19 deaths if lockdown is eased too soon. (SOPA Images/Sipa USA)

"There is certainly a scenario where we open up too early," the expert, who uses a forecasting model called COVIDSIM at Imperial College London, said.

She added that a better forecast comes in a scenario where schools return but many other restrictions remain until September, when most people are vaccinated.

"But if we just allowed everything to open up, for example at the beginning of the summer, then we would potentially see quite a large new wave of infection occurring and tens of thousands of deaths could occur as a result," she warned.

However, ITV said modelling is subject to uncertainty.

Over the weekend, 60 Tory MPs in the COVID Recovery Group signed a letter calling on the prime minister to lift all legal restrictions before May, which was rejected by the government.

Steve Baker, who is part of the group, told LBC that pubs and restaurants should be allowed to reopen in a COVID-secure way by Easter and "if ministers want to keep restrictions in place the onus is on them to justify restrictions at that point".

The chief executive of UKHospitality, Kate Nicholls, called for a "very clear phased exit strategy from the lockdown".

Boris Johnson said he was "increasingly optimistic" about easing restrictions.

But ahead of his announcement on the route out of the third lockdown on 22 February, he warned: "We want this lockdown to be the last. And we want progress to be cautious but also irreversible."

Prime Minister Boris Johnson during a media briefing in Downing Street, London, on coronavirus (Covid-19). Picture date: Monday February 15, 2021.
Boris Johnson said the relaxation of restrictions should be "irreversible". (PA)

Other experts have warned about lifting measures too quickly.

Professor Neil Ferguson, who sits on the government's New and Emerging Respiratory Virus Threats Advisory Group, said on Monday that the "biggest mistake" was not getting coronavirus infections under control ahead of winter and reacting "really late".

The expert, whose modelling led to the March lockdown, told Good Morning Britain on Monday that he was "encouraged" by the government's "cautious strategy" this time around.

His comments were echoed by Dr Gabriel Scally, who is part of the Independent Sage group – separate from the government's official Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies.

The public health physician told the programme that "we do need the cases down" and "if we are going to open up around the country, we can’t repeat the mistakes that we made in the past by loosening restrictions in places where there still is a lot of circulating virus".

Dr Bharat Pankhania, senior clinical lecturer at the University of Exeter medical school, warned that talk of pubs reopening in April is "premature" and there was a danger of going "back to square one".

Watch: What you can and cannot do in lockdown