Easing lockdown is 'taking a bit of a risk' warns top scientific adviser to government

  • Video report by ITV News Political Correspondent Paul Brand

A top scientific adviser to the government has warned easing lockdown measures in England is "taking a bit of a risk" amid the coronavirus crisis.

Professor John Edmunds OBE sits the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (SAGE) - advising ministers on its response to the pandemic.

The Professor has warned Covid-19 incidents remain "really quite high" in England, warning on the easing of restrictions: "We can't lift things very much at all".

It comes as competitive sport in England has been given the go ahead to return from Monday, while Boris Johnson announced new freedoms for the clinically extremely vulnerable shielding through the crisis.

Prof Edmunds' concerns join a growing list of expert advisers to the government expressing apprehension about England's easing of lockdown.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson has announced that from Monday, friends and families can meet in parks and gardens in groups of six - while maintaining social distancing.

As people flocked to beaches and beauty spots in the sunny weather over the weekend, Prof Edmunds was joined by Professor Peter Horby, of the University of Oxford, and Sir Jeremy Farrar to warn that ministers are taking risks.

All three are members of the SAGE committee.

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Speaking to ITV News, Prof Edmunds said: "I think we are taking a bit of a risk at the moment, there's a couple of things.

"One, the reproduction number is only just below one at the moment, so we don't have a lot of headroom, we can't lift things very much at all."

He continued: "Secondly, the incidents are really quiet high, so the ONS survey we are getting 8000 new infections everyday in England, in just the community, that's not counting cases that may occur in hospitals and care homes, and even other settings such as prisons.

"That's quite a lot of cases, 8,000 everyday."

Carparks at beauty spots have been packed with visitors enjoying the sunshine. Credit: PA

The government says it has met its "five tests" for easing lockdown measures in England, with ministers touting the new NHS Test and Trace programme as the next step in controlling the spread of Covid-19.

Prof Edmunds warned, however, that "the track and trace is going to be more effective if the cases are lower."

He added: "I don't think we will have a major second peak, I don’t think the government would ever let that happen, my issue is if we keep the incidents flat."

Deputy chief medical officer for England, Professor Jonathan Van-Tam was quizzed on the comments made by Prof Edmunds and some other SAGE members at Saturday's Downing Street Briefing.

Prof Van-Tam said: "Our science advice has been so far that the social distancing that has already been eased is consistent with keeping the R below one.

"The consensus of scientific advice is that the next set of measures announced for Monday, with contact tracing in place, should also keep the R within one.

"Our advice is then to continue to watch this very carefully and we will continue to give further advice to the government about whether we think it is possible to make further easements after that."

Top scientific advisers to the government are warning the lockdown might have been eased too early. Credit: PA

He added that scientific opinions "always vary to some extent".

Prof Van-Tam stressed the NHS Test and Trace system will also help keep the infection under control.

Hosting the briefing, Cuture Sectreary Olive Dowden said it must be remembered there are more than 50 scientists in SAGE, "all of whom will have their different perspectives".

When asked about the difficulty of asking people to return to a stricter lockdown if the R rate increases, Mr Dowden said the government has been taking "very tentative steps" while "emphasising the need to maintain social distancing."

On Saturday night, Professor Anthony Costello - a former World Health Organisation director - was another scientist to warn about the government's handling of the crisis.

He tweeted the UK could face a "resurgence" of Covid-19.

Members of the public should still be maintaining social distance from those they do not live with.

The easing of England's lockdown will also see the reopening of some schools from Monday, as well more shops starting to resume trading along with outdoor retailers and car showrooms.

Groups of up to six people from different households will be able to exercise together from Monday too, while maintaining social distancing.

Prof Edmunds told ITV News, ""The message we are getting from the government seems to be to rush this a little bit, I don't see how we are at the moment taking small steps and taking it incrementally.

"It doesn't seem to me to be like that. It's the combination of taking multiple steps, altogether that worries me."

England's lifting of restrictions goes further than the easing of lockdowns announced in the other three nations.

Crowds flocked to beaches around the country on Saturday as temperatures soared.

In Scotland, people can now meet others from one other household at a time as long as it is outdoors. First Minister Nicola Sturgeon has warned that social distancing should continue and groups can only be a maximum of eight people.

People in Wales will be allowed to meet up with others outdoors from Monday.

While in Northern Ireland, more retailers can open and small outdoor weddings will receive the go-ahead from June 8 - providing the coronavirus infection rate remains under control.

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