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Leading Sage Scientist Urges Boris Johnson Not To “Rush” Lockdown Easing

Boris Johnson has been urged to take a "gradual" approach to lifting lockdown

5 min read

A leading scientific adviser has called for a “very gradual” lifting of lockdown measures to avoid another surge in infections.

Professor John Edmunds, who sits on the government’s SAGE committee of scientific advisers, said ministers could be “confident” in beginning to ease restrictions, but warned there was a “significant risk” of new infections until more people are vaccinated.

His words come as backbench Conservative MPs begin to increase the pressure on the Prime Minister to ease restrictions as the vaccine programme takes effect.

Boris Johnson is set to announce a ‘roadmap’ for lifting England’s lockdown on Monday, but has insisted his staged approach will be led by scientific advice and will focus on “data not dates”.

In other Covid developments:

  • The Government has vowed to offer a vaccine to all adults by the end of July.
  • The Archbishop of Canterbury said he was “absolutely sure” the government was taking the right approach by prioritising the reopening of schools.
  • Health Secretary Matt Hancock said the number of cases in the UK linked to the South African and Brazillian Covid variants was falling.

But speaking to the BBC’s Andrew Marr, Professor Edmunds said despite the “fantastic” vaccination programme, there was still a risk of overwhelming the NHS if measures were lifted too quickly.

“If you look currently we have quite a high fraction of hospitalistions in the under-70s who we are just starting to vaccinate now,” he said.

“If we eased off very rapidly now we would get another surge in hospitalisations. So we need to ease very gradually otherwise we will put the health service under pressure again and we will get a surge in hospitalisations and deaths.”

Meanwhile, the scientific advisers said ministers should be looking to vaccinate children “as fast as we can” to prevent further disruption of education and reduce the risk of new variants emerging.

“We’re all at risk and we can all spread the virus. I think there is an argument for turning to children as fast as we can,” he said.

“There has been major disruption in schools – and will continue to be major disruption in schools until we have vaccinated our children.”

He added that another reason for not easing too quickly was the risk of further mutations: 

“It is certainly a risk if we allow high risks of infections in certain parts of the community, among younger individuals, then we do run the risk of further mutations occuring which could reduce the effectiveness of the vaccination programme,” he said.

His comments come amid growing pressure on the PM from members of the lockdown-sceptic Covid Research Group (CRG) who have called for the legal restrictions put in place during the pandemic to be lifted by the end of April once everyone in the top nine priority groups had been vaccinated.

The group, which includes dozens of Conservative backbench MPs, wrote to the Prime Minister last week saying the “tremendous pace” of the vaccination programme meant restrictions should begin to lift from early March.

And speaking on Sunday, CRG chair Mark Harper insisted the group was taking a “fairly cautious approach”.

He said: “We have set out our view which is when you have vaccinated the top nine groups, which account for the bulk of the deaths and hospitalisations from Covid, the most vulnerable, which will now be by the middle of April, so allow a couple of weeks for those vaccinations to become effective and we think by the end of April that the case for domestic legal restrictions limiting what people can do fall away.”

Meanwhile, Matt Hancock faced a grilling over a recent High Court ruling which concluded his department had acted “unlawfully” by failing to follow their own transparency rules over the publication of Covid contracts worth billions of pounds.

But Hancock defended his actions during the pandemic, saying officials had been focused on ensuring there was adequate medical equipment and PPE to tackle the pandemic.

“The court case did not find there was a problem with any of the contracts,” he said.

“It found that while of course contracts like this need to be published, and we published all of the details that are required, you are supposed to do that within 30 days, and on average, in the height of the pandemic, we did that within 47 days.”

He added: “So we were just a fortnight late, on average, with that publication.

“The reason for that is because my team were working seven days a week, often 18 hours a day, to get hold of the equipment that was saving lives.”

And speaking to Sky News, Labour leader Keir Starmer said he believed the Health Secretary had been “wrong” about the contracts, but would not be calling on him to resign.

“There has been a lot of problems with the contracts on transparency, on who the contracts have gone to, and there has been a lot of wasted money and I think that is a real cause of concern,” he said.

“But at this moment in this stage of the pandemic I want all government ministers to be working really hard to get us through this.

“Whatever political differences, what the public [knows] is that this needs to succeed, the vaccine roll out needs to succeed.

“So in those circumstances I'd say to Matt Hancock you need to go further on the vaccine, go faster on the vaccine and we need a roadmap from the PM on Monday…”

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