'There is an argument' to speed up lockdown easing, says government COVID modelling expert

Ross McGuinness
·5-min read
Prime Minister Boris Johnson, during a media briefing in Downing Street, London, on coronavirus (Covid-19). Picture date: Monday April 5, 2021.
Prime minister Boris Johnson announced on Monday that the next phase of England's lockdown easing can go ahead as planned. (PA)

There is an argument for speeding up England’s coronavirus lockdown easing roadmap, a government modelling expert has said.

Dr Mike Tildesley, a member of the Scientific Pandemic Influenza Group on Modelling (Spi-M) which advises the government, said a case could be made to quicken the easing if COVID-19 numbers continue to fall.

On Monday, prime minister Boris Johnson confirmed shops, hairdressers and pub beer gardens will reopen from 12 April in England as planned, adding he intends to go for a pint on that date.

Speaking to LBC Radio on Tuesday, Dr Tildesley, a professor of infectious disease modelling at the University of Warwick, said: “If things keep going down at the rate that they are then there certainly is an argument for speeding up the process.”

He added: “I was really pleasantly surprised that with schools open we have managed to keep things in check.

Watch: Boris Johnson warns against complacency as lockdown to be eased

“If these numbers keep going down over the next few weeks there certainly is an argument to say, ‘Well, actually we’re doing really well with the roadmap, it could be sped up’.”

However, Dr Tildesley said: “I would want to be a little bit cautious over the next few weeks as we get beyond this April relaxation to monitor that just to be really sure that cases are continuing to go down.”

The latest government figures revealed there were 2,762 COVID-19 cases reported in the UK on Monday. This means there have been 24,455 cases in the past seven days, down by a third in a week.

There have been 248 deaths from COVID-19 in the past seven days, a drop of 44% from the previous weekly period.

More than 31.5 million people have had the first dose of a COVID-19 vaccination, and 5.4 million have had a second jab, according to government figures.

But Dr Tildesley warned “there may well be” a third coronavirus wave in the UK, although he said it may not be as high as some modelling forecasts.

“We do have very high levels of vaccination now, we do need to remember this, we are protecting our vulnerable,” he said.

“But the vaccines are not 100% protective so when we switch from an R number less than 1 that we have at the moment, to a lot of mixing later on, we may get a resurgence.

“I don’t expect we will have a resurgence of the same scale that we saw in January.”

Minutes of a March 31 meeting of the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage) published on Monday showed that modelling suggested the 12 April measures “may only lead to a modest increase in hospitalisations and deaths” and were “unlikely to exert pressure on the NHS”.

However, the documents revealed Sage advisers warned that there could be resurgences in hospital admissions “of a similar scale to January 2021 after later stages of the road map” planned for May and June, when greater indoor social mixing will be permitted.

A paper from experts at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine suggested that lifting restrictions in the next stage of the roadmap “may lead to a small surge of cases and deaths”.

And their modelling suggested that stage four in June, when restrictions are expected to be lifted completely, could “lead to a larger surge of cases and deaths comparable to that seen during the first wave”.

Professor Sir Mark Walport, former chief scientific adviser to the government, told BBC Breakfast on Tuesday: “It’s clear that we’re making good progress along the roadmap, and it’s entirely appropriate that the first set of restrictions are being relaxed, so that makes very good sense indeed.

“But we’re a long way from taking the brakes off completely. The virus is still very much around and if we take all the brakes off, then it’s quite clear that there is a very substantial risk of a further wave of infection.”

Meanwhile, a government document has revealed that COVID-19 passports are “likely to become a feature of our lives”.

Johnson did not rule out using such certificates to prove someone has had a vaccine, although he said COVID passports will not be needed for the reopening of beer gardens next week or for pubs being accessible indoors from 17 May.

The government is going to trial the passports at upcoming events, including the FA Cup final and the World Snooker Championship.

Johnson faces a battle with a number of his own Conservative MPs and the Labour Party over COVID passports.

More than 70 MPs, including 40 Conservatives, have signed a pledge to oppose the “divisive and discriminatory use of COVID-status certification”, suggesting the move could face defeat in the House of Commons.

The chairman of the powerful Tory backbench 1922 Committee, Sir Graham Brady, is one of those opposed to the passports, along with Mark Harper, chairman of the lockdown-sceptic Covid Recovery Group – who has warned that COVID status certification “will lead to a two-tier Britain”.

Shadow health secretary Jonathan Ashworth told BBC Breakfast on Tuesday: “I’m not going to support a policy that, here in my Leicester constituency, if someone wants to go into Next or H&M, they have to produce a vaccination certificate on their phone, on an app.

“I think that’s discriminatory.”

Watch: Boris Johnson rules out COVID passports in Phase 2 of lockdown easing