A Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage) member has attacked Boris Johnson’s coronavirus unlocking, saying it could cause “winter to come early”.
John Edmunds, professor of infectious diseases at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, said “it’s going to be quite a difficult few months” after the prime minister dropped virtually all COVID-19 mitigations on Monday.
Prof Edmunds pointed to the exponential rise in cases, which is now approaching the numbers seen in the disastrous second wave over the winter, although hospital admissions and deaths remain relatively low thanks to the vaccine rollout.
A key government justification of lifting the lockdown now is a so-called “firebreak” offered by the school holidays, which Johnson said on Monday would avert the risk of needing restrictions in the colder winter months, when respiratory viruses such as COVID thrive.
Professor Chris Whitty, the UK’s most prominent COVID scientist, has also shared this sentiment, saying on 5 July he had “quite a strong view” lifting lockdown in the summer has advantages over autumn.
He said autumn will be “when schools are going back and when we’re heading into the winter period when the NHS tends to be under greatest pressure for many other reasons”.
However, Prof Edmunds, who sits with Prof Whitty on Sage, told Times Radio on Tuesday: “I’m not sure about this thing about let’s get the epidemic over with before winter – I don’t buy it.
"If you’re doing little to stop it and the spread of other respiratory viruses, cases of which have been very low because we’ve been in lockdown, then our winter could come early, if you like.
Watch: Tuesday's politics briefing
“Winter is a long way off and we might have new treatments by then. And I’d rather keep incidents as low as we can for as long as we can.”
According to Oxford University’s Our World in Data website, 46.5% of England’s total population is yet to be fully vaccinated, meaning millions, including children, remain susceptible to the virus.
Prof Edmunds added: “Herd immunity isn’t a strategy, it’s the default if you don’t take interventions.
"There are around nine million susceptible children and if they stay unvaccinated then they will get infected and it’s not good for them or anyone else in society because of the disruption it causes. And we will get hospitalisations and deaths.
“I think it’s going to be quite a difficult few months. We have really high levels of infections. Other waves have been stopped by lockdowns but there’s no plans to do that so it’s going to go on longer.”
Johnson has been facing strong criticism from scientists for dropping all restrictions.
Even his chief scientific adviser Sir Patrick Vallance, appearing alongside the PM at a Downing Street press conference on Monday, said allowing nightclubs to reopen could mean “potential super spreading events”.
Last week, Yahoo News UK reported on the plight of the Netherlands, which saw a massive spike in cases after allowing nightclubs to reopen.
This prompted prime minister Mark Rutte to reverse the easing of restrictions, admitting “poor judgment”.
However, there was a key difference between the pattern of case rates in both countries at the point of unlocking. When the Netherlands reopened on 26 June, infections were falling, whereas cases were continuing to surge when England unlocked on Monday.
Prof Neil Ferguson, the scientist whose modelling convinced Johnson to impose the first national lockdown in March last year, said on Sunday that the end of the lockdown could soon see daily infections rise to 200,000 a day.
On Monday, Johnson also admitted his road map out of lockdown was not “irreversible” as originally promised.
He said: “Something could obviously happen that changes our calculations, and we’ve got to be humble in the face of nature.”
The PM has continued to defend his decision to lift restrictions, however, saying: “We have to ask ourselves the question: if not now, when?”
Watch: Cummings says Johnson wanted to visit Queen in person before first lockdown