It would be “incredibly safe” for two fully vaccinated people to meet up, Professor Jonathan Van-Tam has said, as the Government was questioned as to why the UK is not following the US in enabling vaccinated people to get together without social distancing.
England’s deputy chief medical officer told a Downing Street press briefing that scientifically it would be safe for vaccinated people to meet, but suggested the reason why they are currently prevented from doing so is because younger people have not had a vaccine.
He urged people to wait a “teeny bit longer” for more normal social interactions to resume.
Health Secretary Matt Hancock told the briefing a decision had been made to move as a population towards greater freedoms – as set down in the Government’s road map.
In the US, the Centres for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has said fully vaccinated people can start doing some of the things they did before the pandemic.
It says that two weeks after a second dose, people can gather indoors with other fully vaccinated people without wearing a mask or social distancing.
They can also gather indoors with unvaccinated people from one other household without social distancing unless that household has somebody vulnerable to Covid.
Asked why England will not follow the US, Mr Hancock said: “The decision we’ve taken… is to move together, that’s what the road map does.
“As you know, in the autumn we moved different parts of the country according to the rates that we saw in those areas.
“That had some advantages but it also had a disadvantage that we then saw in the areas where we had fewer restrictions we saw cases pop up.
“So we took the decision when we wrote the road map that we all move as one, and I think that is very widely supported.”
Prof Van-Tam said: “If two people who both had two doses of vaccine and have both served at least 14 days after their second dose, then I would be highly confident scientifically that if they were reputable vaccines then indeed it would be incredibly safe for those two people to meet.”
On when that could happen in the UK, he said: “Soon, I really hope soon, but not quite now.”
He warned that nobody under 42, apart from the clinically extremely vulnerable “in whom the vaccine may be slightly less effective” and healthcare workers, have had the vaccine.
“I know this feels tantalisingly, extremely close, and it is going to be frustrating at times for people, particularly those who’ve had their two doses,” he said.
“But we just need to make sure we don’t have to go backwards again on any of this and just hold the line a teeny bit longer.”
It comes after Dr Mary Ramsay, head of immunisation at Public Health England (PHE), earlier told MPs that part of the reason the country was not following the US in allowing greater freedoms was cultural.
Dr Ramsay told the Commons Science and Technology Committee the UK’s policy of leaving up to 12 weeks between vaccine doses – a move she said has saved lives – means the UK is behind the US when it comes to fully vaccinated individuals.
“I think they (US) are able to be less cautious, perhaps, than us because of the fact that more people have had two doses, which one would expect to get even better protection against transmission,” she said.
“Our data is now coming through showing that even one dose is very good (against transmission), so I think we can begin to look at those factors and we are looking at those factors.
“I think the other thing is we have a slightly different cultural perspective in this country in that we tend to do everything together.
“We are trying to say that this is about the population as a whole rather than the individuals, those privileged individuals who have had two doses, being somehow able to do things that other people cannot.”
Greg Clark, chairman of the committee, asked Dr Ramsay if that means decisions are being taken for sociological reasons, rather than being based on the science.
She said the road map and policy decisions are being taken by the Government, not by PHE, and the road map reflects “doing everything as a whole”.
Dr Ramsay added: “It may be that, within the future road map, we are able to pick out individuals.
“I think that is the direction of travel, that we will all be able to release certain things as time goes on, but you know the next level will be to allow people to meet indoors, and it won’t necessarily depend only on having been vaccinated.”
Dr Ramsay also told MPs it was “very important” that as many people as possible are vaccinated before all restrictions are eased.
“It is really very important that we have as many people vaccinated before we release all those restrictions, so at the moment we are trying to balance it very carefully,” she said.
“As more people get vaccinated, we are releasing gradually, we’re observing what happens, and then that’s allowing us to carry on, but it does depend on what the future holds, how people behave, how the vaccine works.”
Dr Ramsay said that while the proportion of people with two jabs is increasing, there are still some elderly who have not been vaccinated and children cannot yet have a vaccination.
“I think it will be very hard to say confidently that by X we can stop doing Y and I think it really is a question of keeping observing and keeping monitoring, so that we can get that balance right,” she said.
“There is a risk that we get a resurgence as we release restrictions – hopefully that will mainly lead to mild disease and younger people, but there will still be the risk that those people can potentially pass this on to older individuals who are, for whatever reason, either unable to respond to vaccine, unvaccinated or maybe if the vaccine begins to lose protection over time.”
Dr Ramsay said that there will be a need to monitor regional spikes in future coronavirus cases.
“There is always the risk that if that pocket of transmission – whether it’s due to social factors, housing, behaviour, vaccination or lack of vaccination – they could potentially all coalesce and you could have potentially pockets where there was quite worrying rates of transmission, so I think the real importance is that we continue to monitor this on a very careful basis and we continue to look at the local level.”