Scientists have warned that the proposed Covid roadmap changes for May and June could cause hospital admissions to rise to levels seen during January's winter peak.
Boris Johnson outlined his plan for easing restrictions on Monday and confirmed shops, hairdressers and pub beer gardens will reopen from April 12 in England and urged the public against complacency when it came to obeying the rules.
The PM, setting out the move to the second step of the road map on Monday, said the shift was “fully justified by the data” and that he had seen “nothing” to make him think he would have to “deviate” from his intention to scrap all restrictions by June 21 at the earliest.
His comments come despite modelling from the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage) showing that, while stage two of the unlocking is unlikely to exert pressure on the NHS, the proposed changes for May and June when social mixing is set to be permitted again could cause hospital admissions to rise to levels seen during January’s winter peak.
Stage two of lockdown easing will see some premises allowed to reopen – some of them for the first time in three months – from next week, including non-essential shops, hairdressers and nail salons, gyms, while independent or household visits to libraries, community centres, zoos, theme parks and drive-in cinemas will also be allowed.
Self-contained accommodation including campsites and holiday lets will be permitted to receive guests, and bars and restaurants will be allowed to serve customers outdoors, but groups will be limited to two households or by the rule of six.
A paper from experts at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine said their projections suggested stage two of the road map “may lead to a small surge of cases and deaths” but stage four in June, when restrictions are expected to be abolished, could “lead to a larger surge of cases and deaths comparable to that seen during the first wave”.
They cautioned their findings were “preliminary” and made “pessimistic assumptions” about the later stages of the road map.
But scientists at the University of Warwick also shared a similar conclusion that a “distinct third wave of infection” would arise due to the current rate of planned unlocking, with hospital admissions peaking between late July and mid-August.
Minutes from the Sage meeting on March 31 said there could be resurgences in hospital admissions “of a similar scale to January 2021 after later stages of the road map”.
It comes as England’s chief medical officer Professor Chris Whitty warned that coronavirus “will be with us for the foreseeable future” while chief scientific adviser Sir Patrick Vallance suggested the pandemic could result in long-term changes in behaviour.
Sir Patrick said better hand hygiene, regular Covid-19 testing and staying away from work when feeling ill were “likely to be important baseline measures” in the future.
As well as warnings about the impact of his lockdown easing plans, Mr Johnson looks set for a showdown with Tory MPs as the government appeared to pave the way for so-called vaccine passports to be used in the UK.
A government paper on the interim findings of a taskforce review of Covid status certification said they could have an “important role to play both domestically and internationally, as a temporary measure”.
They will not be needed for the reopening of beer gardens next week or for the return of drinkers to pubs next month but the review, led by Cabinet Office minister Michael Gove, appeared to hold the door open to them being adopted by publicans at a later date.
The eight-page document said it was “possible” Covid certificates could “play a role in reducing social distancing requirements” in hospitality settings – a signal that if pubs want to be packed again, they might have to come up with ways of checking vaccine passports.
The government has promised further consultation with the sector but the concept has riled Tory MPs.
Former Conservative leader Sir Iain Duncan Smith told Times Radio further checks to go to the pub were a “diminution of your logical rights” while former chief whip Mark Harper warned their introduction would lead to a “two-tier Britain”.
With Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer calling the idea “un-British”, Mr Johnson – who is due to visit the North West on Tuesday – could be facing a defeat in the House of Commons if he concedes to the Covid Recovery Group, made up of lockdown-sceptic Tories, and agrees to a vote on vaccine passports.
The row over Covid certificates comes amid reports the Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency (MHRA) is considering proposals to restrict the use of the Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccine in younger people and that, according to Channel 4, a decision could be made as early as Tuesday.
The MHRA said no decision on regulatory action had been taken in relation to reports of rare blood clots following being vaccinated with the AstraZeneca jab.
But epidemiologist Professor Neil Ferguson said the recent findings raised questions about the “risk-benefit equation” of younger people having the Oxford-made inoculation.
At Monday’s press conference, Mr Johnson confirmed plans to offer everyone in England twice-weekly quick-result lateral flow tests in a bid to stamp out asymptomatic transmission as the lockdown eases.
As of Tuesday, hauliers travelling to England from outside the UK for visits lasting more than two days will be tested for coronavirus as the Government looks to keep out variants of concern that are partly behind the surging case numbers in Europe.