Another surge in coronavirus cases in the UK is inevitable and could hit in late summer, despite the success of the country’s ongoing vaccine rollout, MPs have been told.
Professor Chris Whitty, England's chief medical officer, said that even under the most optimistic set of assumptions, a further 30,000 lives could be lost to Covid-19, as he warned against the dangers of lifting restrictions too quickly.
Modelling suggests “that at some point we will get a surge in virus”, he told the Science and Technology Select Committee.
This is because not everyone in the UK will have been vaccinated when restrictions are eased, or be fully protected having had the jabs, he explained, therefore allowing the virus to continue circulating among susceptible pockets of the population.
“We hope it doesn't happen soon. It might, for example, happen later in the summer if we open up gradually, or because of the seasonal effect it might happen over the next autumn and winter,” Prof Whitty said.
He added: “All the modelling suggests there is going to be a further surge and that will find the people who either have not been vaccinated or where the vaccine has not worked.
“Some of them will end up in hospital and sadly some of them will go on to die.”
Previous modelling has shown that that even with a vaccine uptake rate of 90 per cent among the UK’s top priority groups, which account for the vast majority of Covid-related fatalities, up to 1 million at-risk people would remain vulnerable to the disease.
This may be enough to fuel another wave of hospital admissions and deaths if restrictions are lifted too quickly, potentially burdening the NHS, scientists have said.
Prof Whitty said that the speed of reopening would shape the size and the timing of a resurgence, but that vaccines would not be able to prevent all deaths from Covid-19.
“The ratio of cases to deaths will go right down as a result of vaccination, but not right down to zero, unfortunately,” he said.
Given the risk of resurgence, Prof Whitty pushed back on MPs’ calls to accelerate the government’s “roadmap” to easing restrictions in England, with measures to be lifted at five-week intervals up to 21 June.
The picture in the UK has drastically improved in recent weeks: cases and deaths are currently at their lowest level since early October, while more than a third of the adult population of Britain has now received a first vaccine dose.
The government said on Tuesday that a further 231 Covid-19 fatalities had been recorded, bringing the UK tally to 124,797, while 5,766 new infections were reported.
Figures from the Office for National Statistics meanwhile show that weekly Covid deaths in the over-80s in England and Wales have fallen 79 per cent since the peak of five weeks ago. Fatalities in adults aged 75-79 have dropped 79 per cent over the same period; for 70- to 74-year-olds, the fall was 76 per cent.
But despite the UK’s progress in bringing its epidemic under control, Prof Whitty warned against moving too quickly in the weeks and months ahead.
“If you look at the history of this all around the world, the history of this is not full of countries and individual leaders wishing they had done more, faster,” he said. “It's full of leaders who wished they had acted quicker and then been more careful as they take things off.”
Prof Whitty said officials would have a better grasp of the situation’s trajectory following 17 May, when indoor mixing of up to six people could be allowed, along with the reopening of bars and restaurants.
“That is the point when we are really going to start to see some very significant risks accumulating, potentially,” he warned.
Pressed on whether some measures could be brought forward if the data on the roadmap out of lockdown is better than anticipated, Prof Whitty said it would take at least three to four weeks between each interval to gather sufficient evidence.
The government’s chief scientific adviser, Sir Patrick Vallance, echoed those views, telling MPs: “If you truncate that, you are essentially flying blind.
“You might feel, ‘Oh, I can smell it going in a certain direction; it looks like this,’ but you really want to know.”
He added: “It's all pointing in the right direction, but I think nobody can say with certainty that this is finished. We're certainly not out of the woods yet, even on this wave.”
Prof Whitty also pointed to the example of Europe, where many countries are now recording an uptick in cases, having fared better than the UK in controlling Covid-19 throughout the winter.
“I think a lot of people may think this is all over. I would encourage them to look at what is happening in continental Europe at the moment, where a lot of countries are going into rates going up and having to close things down, having not been in that situation before,” he said.
“I think it's very easy to forget quite how quickly things can turn bad if you don't keep a very, very close eye on it.”
Sir Patrick also insisted that a “zero Covid” strategy was not possible, saying “there’s nothing to suggest that this virus will go away”.
“Our focus needs to be on reducing the levels we have here. That is the key point: to keep things under control,” he said.
“As levels come down, test, trace and isolate becomes increasingly important, cluster identification – making sure we understand where there are outbreaks and how to deal with them – and of course the vaccine is going to make a huge difference to all of this.”