People should be able to hug again when case numbers are “very, very low”, a former government adviser has said.
Professor Sir Mark Walport, former chief scientific adviser to the Government, said there are still around 5,000 cases a day in the UK.
And that while most of the vulnerable population are now protected, there are still 37 million people who have not been immunised.
But he said more is being learned about vaccines each day – including evidence on whether they can help stop the spread of the virus.
Meanwhile, the “hands, face, space, fresh air” slogan serves as a reminder to people not to “sneak into the house” as restrictions ease, he added.
Asked about when people could hug again, he told Times Radio: “I think that when the evidence shows that the case number is really, really low indeed, that’s the point, so some degree of caution makes sense.
“We’re also learning more about the effectiveness of the vaccine every day at the moment – as more and more people get the vaccine then we will learn from the numbers.”
When asked what he would consider to be “very, very low indeed”, he said: “Well, how long is a piece of string?
“As I say, it’s significantly lower than we’ve got at the moment, you know 5,000 cases a day is roughly where we were at the end of September, and certainly if this was on an upward trajectory we would be pretty worried at the sorts of numbers.
“Somewhere around 0.3% to 0.4% of the population across the UK on any day being infected – that’s the prevalence of the infection.”
But asked about hugs between grandparents and grandchildren on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme, he added: “Be very cautious is the answer.
“The transmission (of the virus) outdoors is much less, but it is actually proximity at the end of the day – that is the important issue in transmission from one person to another.
“And prolonged close proximity outside carries its own risks.
“So people are going to have to exercise their judgment, but hopefully in a cautious way.”
Sports minister Nigel Huddleston said, “please don’t do the hugging”.
Asked about the issue on Times Radio, Mr Huddleston said: “I want to hug my mum as well – politicians are human beings too and we’re as desperately keen to do this as everybody else.
“At the moment the message is still be cautious.
“We’ve got the rule of six – you can now go out and visit friends and relatives in their gardens – this is very much an outdoor message.
“But uncomfortable as it is, please don’t do the hugging, because what you’re doing is risking the health of the very people that you love.
“(It’s) just a matter of time. We’ll be looking at social distancing and other measures as time goes on.
“The whole point of this road map is to take it stage by stage, take it cautiously, look at the measures, see how we’re making progress.
“And then the goal is to reduce as many of these social distancing measures as possible from June 21.
“But it’s steady as we go, this is a cautious, but hopefully irreversible route that we’re going down.”
Sir Mark also told the Today programme: “We have vaccinated over half the adult population – over 30 million people – but of course that leaves 37 million people who haven’t been immunised.”
Sir Mark added: “We are a bit concerned about the variants that may be less susceptible to the effects of the vaccine, and certainly in parts of Europe the South African variant has the prevalence of around somewhere around 5% in some parts.
“Vaccines are very good news. And we know that most of the vulnerable population is protected.
“And we also know that increasingly the vaccines reduce the transmission, and even milder disease.”
On airborne transmission, he told Times Radio: “We know now that airborne transmission is the most important way which this virus transmits and clearly when you’re outside it gets blown away much more easily.
“And it’s one of the reasons that summer is a safer time for most respiratory viruses.
“We have just come out of a time of year when it takes people a certain amount of persuasion to be outside.
“The bottom line is, there is still quite a lot of infection about and we need to emphasise to people that the relax in the restrictions is outdoors and it doesn’t give people an excuse to sneak into the house.”
Meanwhile, he told the programme that vaccine passports were “not inevitable”.
“It will be much easier to weigh up the pros and cons when we know much more accurately what the effects of the vaccine are,” he said.
“We don’t know how long vaccination lasts but it’s likely to be a decent period of time.
“So I think these are questions that the policymakers are struggling with – they are difficult questions actually.
“And we should be getting the report from the group looking at this in the next week or two.”