Experts including government scientific advisers have called for a delay in lifting England’s remaining coronavirus restrictions on 21 June, saying: “We don’t want to go backwards.”
Their intervention comes amid reports that the easing of lockdown will be delayed by four weeks.
Dr Mike Tildesley, a member of the Scientific Pandemic Influenza Group on Modelling (SPI-M), said on Saturday that such a delay would give scientists the opportunity to assess the link between rising cases numbers 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 BBC Radio 4’s Today programme.
“Of course they 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.”
There were 45,895 new Covid-19 cases in the UK in the seven days to Friday, a 58.1% rise on the previous seven days and the highest weekly rate since early March. In the same period there were 61 deaths, a 10.9% rise on the previous week.
Government sources said on Friday that the lifting of lockdown restrictions in England was likely to be delayed for up to a month as cases rose at their fastest rate since the winter wave.
Boris Johnson is scheduled to make an announcement on Monday after a “quad” meeting with three senior ministers that is expected to take place over the weekend.
Prof Peter Openshaw, a member of the New and Emerging Respiratory Virus Threats Advisory Group (Nervtag), urged the government to be cautious given the emergence of the Delta variant, which was first identified in India.
“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.”
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.
“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 restrictionswere 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.
The 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.