Experts have warned ministers that lifting all remaining Covid restrictions on June 21 could leave the NHS struggling to cope as it already faces a huge backlog in non-coronavirus cases. Downing Street said it was too soon for speculation about whether the plans for ending lockdown could go ahead.
Professor Ravi Gupta, from the University of Cambridge, said although new cases were “relatively low” the Indian variant had fuelled “exponential growth”.
On Sunday, the UK reported more than 3,000 new Covid infections for a fifth day in a row.
Prior to this, the UK had not surpassed that number since 12 April.
Prof Gupta told the BBC that the UK was already in a third wave of infections and at least three-quarters of cases were the Indian variant.
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He said: “Of course the numbers of cases are relatively low at the moment.
“All waves start with low numbers of cases that grumble in the background and then become explosive, so the key here is that what we are seeing here is the signs of an early wave.”
However, he said the number of people who had been vaccinated in the UK meant this wave would probably take longer to emerge than previous ones.
He said: “There may be a false sense of security for some time, and that’s our concern.”
Prof Gupta – a member of the government’s New and Emerging Respiratory Virus Threats Advisory Group (Nervtag) – said ending restrictions in June should be delayed “by a few weeks whilst we gather more intelligence”.
He added: “If you look at the costs and benefits of getting it wrong, I think it is heavily in favour of delay, so I think that’s the key thing.”
Another leading scientific adviser to the government, Prof Adam Finn, also urged caution over the June 21 date.
He told ITV: “I think it’s unfortunate that everyone’s got this particular date in their head, because really what we need to do is understand how things are going and adjust accordingly.
“This time around, we should be cautious, wait to see what’s happening, and then let everyone free, if you like, once we know for sure that that’s safe and that we can do that without having another round of lockdowns.”
Environment Secretary George Eustice said the government could not rule out a delay to the planned lockdown easing.
He said the government needed to take things “one step at a time”.
He said: “We can’t rule anything out. We know this has been a difficult pandemic, a dynamic situation.
“We have to make that judgment a couple of weeks before.
“It will only be by then that we will see the impact of the latest easement we made on 17 May.”
A final decision on whether restrictions will be lifted in England will be reached on 14 June.
The vaccines minister, Nadhim Zahawi, also refused to deny that some restrictions such as mask wearing and working from home might remain in place to reduce the spread of the virus.
Senior scientific advisers believe that, where possible, working from home makes sense beyond June because it would cut the number of people who come into contact with each other.