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Scientists have urged the Government to be “cautious” about fully lifting lockdown measures in England due to the rise in cases of the Delta variant.
They fear the surge in infections of the mutant strain, also known as the Indian variant, could lead to NHS hospitals being overwhelmed.
It comes amid reports Boris Johnson will reportedly announce on Monday that lockdown restrictions will not be lifted as hoped on June 21 and so-called Freedom Day will be delayed by up to four weeks.
Professor Peter Openshaw, a member of the Nervtag advisory group, said that it was a “disappointing setback” that the Delta variant first identified India seemed even more successful than the previous strains.
People walk through Bolton town centre as a sign urges them to social distance
(Image: Julian Hamilton/Daily Mirror)
He told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme on Saturday: “This Delta variant seems to be about 60 per cent more transmissible than that (the Alpha, or Kent, variant).
“So it really has gone up another gear and that means that we really have to double down and not lose all the advantage that has been gained by the massive effort that has been put in so far.”
Professor Tom Solomon, director of the Health Protection Research Unit in Emerging and Zoonotic Infections at the University of Liverpool, said the country could not afford a “bad decision” on unlocking.
He told BBC Breakfast that while vaccines were having a “massive impact”, opening up could lead to hospitals being overwhelmed.
A man receives a coronavirus vaccine at St John's shopping centre in Preston, Lancashire
(Image: Daily Mirror/Andy Stenning)
Prof Solomon added: “If you look at hospitalisations, they are doubling – the numbers are small but they are doubling approximately every seven days – and so if you then suddenly say we are going to open up completely we may end up with the hospitals overwhelmed again.
“So I think, unfortunately, we are just going to have to maybe give it another month until we have so many more people vaccinated.”
A four-week delay in lifting lockdown restrictions in England will give scientists a chance to assess whether a rise in coronavirus cases is leading to a corresponding increase in hospital admissions, a scientist involved in advising the Government said.
Dr Mike Tildesley, a member of the SPI-M modelling group, told the BBC Radio 4 Today programme: "The key thing now is not just looking at cases but really trying to establish the link between cases and hospital admissions.
"We are starting to see early signals that hospital admissions are going up but it is just slightly unclear exactly how much we may expect them to go up over the next couple of weeks given the vaccines are playing a very key role.
"Of course they (the vaccines) are not 100% perfect so we need to be cautious. We don't want to go backwards when it comes to control, we don't want to be slipping into another lockdown."
Their comments come as the Prime Minister looks set to delay the final lifting of restrictions in England following another sharp rise in cases of the Delta variant.
Ministers are considering putting back the relaxing of controls planned for June 21 for up to four weeks as they race to roll out the vaccine to younger age groups.
A final decision is expected to be taken on Sunday ahead of a formal announcement by the Prime Minister at a news conference the following day.
If there is a delay, face coverings, work from home advice and social distancing are expected to remain, along with the rule of six and capacity limits on venues such as theatres. Nightclubs would remain closed.
There were conflicting reports over what a delay would mean for the wedding industry, which has taken a huge hit during the pandemic.
It had been hoped weddings would be given an exemption and the current 30-person limit would be increased.
However, senior Government sources told the Telegraph that restrictions on numbers would have to remain after officials from the Department of Health warned they could become "superspreader" events.
It came a day after the Times reported that weddings would be exempted if there is a delay in lifting restrictions on June 21.
Foreign Office minister James Cleverly said it was “key” that the country did not trip up at the final hurdle and that restrictions will be lifted in “a way that is safe”.
Mr Cleverly told Times Radio on Saturday: “The point we’ve made right at the start of this progressive easing of lockdown is that we’ll be guided by the scientific evidence.
“This will be based on data rather than just on dates.
This chart shows the trend of Covid-19 hospital admissions in England
(Image: Press Association Images)
“And we want to make sure that we continue with the speedy rollout and vaccination process.
“But ultimately we do, all of us, want to get back to the normal way of living and have these restrictions lifted. But it’s really, really key that we don’t trip up, potentially at the final hurdle.
“And so we want to ease these restrictions in a way that is safe.”
However a delay – potentially to July 19 – will come as a bitter blow to many businesses, particularly in the hospitality and leisure sectors, which had been pinning their hopes on a full summer reopening to help recoup some of the losses of the past year.
People visit a coronavirus vaccination centre in Blackburn town centre, Lancashire
(Image: Julian Hamilton/Daily Mirror)
For Labour, shadow home secretary Nick Thomas-Symonds said the country was now paying the price for the refusal of ministers to heed the warnings of its own Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage).
“Any delay in rolling back restrictions would be a huge blow for many families and businesses across the country. The fault for this lies squarely with Conservative ministers,” he said.
“Despite warnings from Labour, Sage and others they continued with a reckless border policy that allowed the Delta variant to reach the UK and spread.
“Now the British people look set to have to pay the price.”
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Scientists now estimate that 96 per cent of all new cases of coronavirus are attributed to the Delta variant.
The latest figures from Public Health England (PHE) showed there have been 42,323 cases of the Delta variant confirmed in the UK, up by 29,892 from the previous week.
It estimates the strain is 60 per cent more transmissible compared with the previously dominant Alpha, or Kent, variant, and that cases are doubling every four-and-a-half days in some parts of England.
Meanwhile, Merton Council in south London has announced that it is stepping up targeted surge testing in two areas – including an industrial estate in New Malden – where there have been recent outbreaks.
Additional testing is also being carried out in Staffordshire and in Northwich and Winsford in Cheshire.
The setback comes as leading figures behind the successful vaccination programme were recognised in the Queen’s Birthday Honours list.
They include the Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccine mastermind Professor Sarah Gilbert and the ex-chairwoman of the UK vaccine taskforce Kate Bingham who are both recognised with damehoods.