Boris Johnson was under mounting pressure on Saturday to reconsider Monday’s relaxation of Covid rules in England because of the threat posed by the India variant. His own advisers and independent health experts raised fears that it could lead to a surge in hospital admissions, especially among young adults.
From Monday people will be able to meet in groups of up to 30 outdoors, while six people or two households will be permitted to meet indoors. Pubs, bars, cafes and restaurants will be allowed to serve customers indoors. Indoor entertainment such as museums, cinemas and children’s play areas can also open along with theatres, concert halls, conference centres and sports stadiums.
Overnight stays will be allowed. Weddings, receptions and other ceremonies will be able to take place among groups of up to 30. Unlimited numbers of people will be able to attend funerals.
But there are fears the new India variant could trigger a third wave, just as the “big bang” relaxation approaches. Professor Andrew Hayward, a member of the government’s taskforce on new and emerging viruses (Nervtag), said the relaxations would drive up the numbers infected with the India variant and that unvaccinated younger adults would be most at risk.
“Indoor mixing will almost certainly increase transmission of the B.1.617.2 variant but at this stage nobody can be sure by how much,” he said.
Hayward added that many people would end up in hospital if, as feared, the variant proved 40% more transmissible than previous variants, notably the Kent variant, which drove the lethal second wave over the winter. Modelling by the government’s own Sage committee of scientific advisers has already said the increase in transmissibility from the new variant could be as high as 50%.
“A 20% increase in transmissibility is not a big problem; [but] a 40% increase would be a huge problem and could lead to a sizeable surge in hospitalisations. A big surge in hospitalisations would likely have knock-on consequences for routine health services and the backlog of care,” Hayward warned.
Meanwhile Professor Kit Yates, a member of the Independent Sage committee of scientific experts, told the Observer that Johnson should delay Monday’s unlocking by a fortnight to allow more people to be vaccinated. By pressing ahead, Yates said the prime minister would be breaching one of the government’s four key tests – that of risk assessment not being changed by a new variant – that he had previously insisted would guide all decisions on when and whether to ease restrictions.
“At this point the precautionary principle should kick in,” Yates said. “The more people we can vaccinate, the safer we become. Even a couple of weeks at this point could make a huge difference in the face of this seemingly more transmissible variant. A pause would also buy us time to understand more about the properties of the variant, which would put us in a better position to plan what comes next.”
He added: “The rapid rises in B.1.617.2 and the waves of hospitalisations that are predicted by the Sage modelling means that the risk has fundamentally changed and that the fourth test is not being met. The data suggesting a reassessment of the roadmap is there.”
Downing Street insisted that the relaxations would go ahead as planned. But Professor Martin McKee, another member of Independent Sage, described easing the lockdown as a real risk: “The prime minister will make his own decision,” he said. “The scientific advice he is receiving is clear. Opening on Mondayis taking a large risk and we know that we have not met the fourth of his tests for proceeding with the scheduled roadmap,” he said.
Stressing the dangers for younger adults, McKee added: “While the individual risk to a young person of severe illness is low, if very large numbers are infected the absolute numbers becoming seriously ill could be high.” A third wave of infection would also leave more people suffering the debilitating effects of long Covid, which around 1.1 million Britons already have, McKee added.
Labour on Saturday intensified attacks on the government for failing to respond fast enough to calls for surge vaccinations in new Covid “hotspots” including Bolton and Blackburn.
Shadow health secretary Jonathan Ashworth said: “With health officials on the ground in Bolton and Blackburn pleading to deploy surge vaccination it beggars belief ministers are rebuffing those calls, especially when the Sage minutes appear to support wider vaccination. It’s urgent that the spread of this variant is contained. We know from the Kent mutation how widespread a variant can become without action.”
He also blamed the government for failing act earlier to impose border controls. “The tragedy is if Boris Johnson had put in place robust border controls we could have avoided this. Instead our borders have been like a sieve threatening to set us back when we have come so far.”
But a government spokesman said: “We have some of the toughest border measures in the world. We took precautionary action to ban travel from India on 23 April, six days before this variant was put under investigation and two weeks before it was labelled as of concern. We have since sped up our vaccination programme and put in enhanced local support to curb transmission. Prior to India being placed on the red list in April, anyone coming to the UK had to test negative and quarantine for 10 days.”
Professor Paul Hunter, an infectious diseases expert at the University of East Anglia, said: “I do think it will lead to a surge in infections and that we are now entering the third wave.”
While the evidence to postpone Monday’s relaxation is not yet there, “we may look back in three weeks’ time and think that step 3 was ill-advised, though we may not”.