Concern among UK advisers at plan to ease Covid-19 restrictions
Warning that lack of tracing system means rise in infections will take time to be spotted
People enjoy the sunshine on the beach at Southend-On-Sea in Essex, in Britain, on Saturday. Photograph: EPA
A growing number of expert advisers to the British government on the coronavirus crisis have expressed concern about plans to ease lockdown restrictions in England from Monday.
As people flocked to beaches and beauty spots in the sweltering heat over the weekend, professor Peter Horby, of the University of Oxford, joined scientists Sir Jeremy Farrar and professor John Edmunds, all members of the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage), to warn that ministers are taking risks.
British prime minister Boris Johnson has announced that from Monday in England, friends and families can meet in parks and gardens in socially distanced groups of six.
But professor Robert West, a participant in the Scientific Pandemic Influenza Group on Behaviours (SPI-B) which advises Sage, emphasised on Saturday that some 8,000 infections, and 400 deaths, a day are still occurring in the UK.
Speaking in a personal capacity, he said: “Put all this together and you have a huge risk, and it’s not just me saying that, that there will be an increase in infection rates.
“Because we don’t have track and trace in place, we won’t know whether this easing of the lockdown has caused (an) increase in infections for some time, by which time it will be well under way, the second peak will be well under way.
“The government is not taking its responsibilities for political leadership seriously.
“This should not be treated as a political crisis but as a health crisis, if you treat it as a political crisis it’s all about managing your reputation, if you treat it as a health crisis it’s about saving lives.”
When asked whether he believes news about the prime minister’s key adviser Dominic Cummings travelling from London to Durham during the full lockdown would have an impact on people sticking to the latest rules, the UCL scientist said: “Trust in authority telling you to do things is very important when it comes to people adhering to those rules.
“When people see something like the Cummings affair... that’s not a recipe for trust.”
The easing of England’s lockdown will also signal the reopening of schools to allow some students to return, and more shops will resume trading along with outdoor retailers and car showrooms.
Asked if he agrees it is too soon to ease more of the lockdown, Prof Horby told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme: “Actually, I do. We have still got 8,000 cases a day.”
He added that although measures taken so far “have been very successful in... decreasing the numbers”, it is vital “we don’t lose control again”.
He said one of the key issues is the NHS Test and Trace system, which has been rolled out across England with the help of 25,000 contact tracers.
But the programme will not be operational at a local level until the end of next month, while an accompanying app is delayed by several weeks.
Prof Horby added: “Sage has always been very clear that that needs to be in place and fully operational before social distancing can be safely relaxed.
“We are not entirely sure what the effect of relaxing the social measures will be, and so we need to have that safety net of the test, trace and isolate system.
“And, as we know, it’s not yet fully operational — so, I think that is where the risk lies. We are entering a period where there is a risk of increasing transmission, but we don’t yet have that safety net fully in place.”
Another Sage member, professor Calum Semple, insisted that a “brave” political decision had been taken on schools reopening “were everything normal”, but cautioned that high levels of transmission were still being seen, according to the BBC.
He said: “Essentially we’re lifting the lid on a boiling pan and it’s just going to bubble over.
“We need to get it down to simmer before we take the lid off, and it’s too early.”
Greater Manchester mayor Andy Burnham also said he believes lockdown restrictions are being relaxed too soon.
He told the BBC: “I think we have arrived at quite a dangerous moment.
“This is premature, this easing of the lockdown. Test and trace is not fully operational and it should be, in my view, before these steps are taken.”
Professor Edmunds, meanwhile, told Sky News officials are “trying to replace these blanket measures with a much more targeted approach, this track and trace, where instead of everybody being in lockdown you put those who are most at risk in lockdown for a couple of weeks.”
But because the new system only started on Thursday, he added: “We can’t be sure that is working effectively yet, and yet we’re going ahead and making these changes anyway.”
The remarks came as the National Education Union (NEU) called for the Government to “draw back” from reopening primary schools in England from Monday.
“No-one can now confidently assert that it is safe to open schools more widely from Monday.
“All four of these independent members of Sage agree that there must be a lower number of cases and an efficient system of contact tracing working before there is a relaxation of lockdown measures.
“Opening schools more widely runs the risk of increasing the R rate and therefore the level of risk to staff and to parents. That risk can only be mitigated if contact tracing is running successfully.”
Sir Jeremy also said the track and trace system needs to be “fully working” before measures are eased, warning the virus is still spreading “too fast to lift lockdown in England”.
In Scotland, people can now meet others from one other household at a time as long as it is outdoors, but social distancing should continue and groups must be a maximum of eight people.
People in Wales will be allowed to meet up with others outdoors from Monday.
In Northern Ireland, more retailers can open and small outdoor weddings will receive the go-ahead from June 8 if the coronavirus infection rate remains under control. - PA