Speeding up the easing of lockdown could leave the country “flying blind” to the risks of another surge in cases, the government’s chief scientific adviser has warned.
Sir Patrick Vallance told a group of MPs the five-week gap between each step of easing restrictions was needed to evaluate the impact on infections and transmission.
He was echoed by Professor Chris Whitty, England’s chief medical officer, who said “big blocks of risk are being taken” every time measures are relaxed.
Prof Whitty added that models demonstrated that “if you open up too fast, a lot more people die”.
“If we unlock too quickly we would get a substantial surge whilst a lot of people are not protected,” he said.
Modelling considered by the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (SAGE) has suggested that even under the most optimistic set of assumptions, at least a further 30,000 coronavirus deaths could occur.
Prof Whitty said: “If people think this is all over – I would encourage them to look to continental Europe… where a lot of countries are going back into rates going up and having to close things down again having not been in that situation before.”
In a further warning 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.
“If you start shunting things forward you will get these higher peaks.”
The first step in Boris Johnson’s four-part plan to ease England’s third national lockdown began on Monday.
Schools and colleges reopened and care home residents were allowed to welcome a single, nominated visitor.
The next steps are expected to come on 29 March, 12 April, and the 17 May.
The prime minister hopes to be able to lift the majority of COVID rules by 21 June, but this is dependent on cases, deaths and hospital admissions continuing to fall so the dates are the earliest any of the stated rules could be lifted.
Each step of the four-part roadmap out of lockdown is separated by five weeks – with four weeks to analyse the latest COVID data, and one week to give notice to businesses.
The hope is to spread out the easing process to avoid a further surge of the virus and avoid a return to the previous system of regional tiers.
Prof Whitty told MPs he would “strongly advise” against any attempt to “concertina” the five-week interval between steps, suggesting the measures pencilled in for 17 May, when indoor mixing of up to six people could be allowed, involved “significant risks”.
“That is the point when we are really going to start to see some very significant risks accumulating, potentially,” he said.
Nevertheless, Prof Whitty told the committee that even with a cautious approach there will be inevitably be another surge of the virus, possibly at the end of summer or next winter.
This is likely to impact those who have not had the vaccine but will also impact some vaccinated people as jabs are not 100% effective.
Prof Whitty said: “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, and some of them will end up in hospital and sadly, some of them will go on to die.”
He added: “It is really important that we do not give any impression that what we are expecting is this just goes away and there is no further deaths.
“That is not realistic and I think to pretend that to the British public would be completely wrong.”
Going forward, Sir Patrick said a “zero COVID” strategy was not possible.
“I do not think that zero COVID is possible,” he said. “I think there’s nothing to suggest that this virus will go away, at least any time soon…
“Our focus needs to be on reducing the levels we have here. That is the key point, to keep things under control.”
He added: “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.”