No10’s former scientific adviser says ministers should delay June 21 reopening by a ‘few weeks’ and expand vaccine roll-out to over-12s ‘quickly’
- Sir David King warned hospitalisations were already rising across the country in an intervention today
- He called on ministers to announce a delay to June 21 reopening ‘right away’ because of rising admissions
- It comes after the Health Secretary refused to rule out keeping wearing face masks beyond June 21
- Mr Hancock added unlocking could be pushed back if the data showed this would be necessary
Sir David King today urged ministers to announce a delay to easings ‘right away’
No10’s former scientific adviser today urged ministers to delay the June 21 ‘Freedom Day’ by a ‘few weeks’ amid rising cases of the Indian variant, and to expand the vaccines roll out to over-12s as soon as possible.
Sir David King, who also chairs Independent SAGE, said the data was ‘in now’ to show plans to ease restrictions must be pushed back, and this should be announced ‘right away’.
He told Sky News Covid hospitalisations were ‘not actually stable’ but ‘slowly rising’.
Department of Health data showed there were 932 people in the UK’s hospitals suffering from Covid on June 3, the latest available.
But this was miles below the 40,000 patients in hospital in early January when England was plunged into its third lockdown, and a rise of just seven per cent on the previous week.
NHS doctors say the majority of those being admitted to wards with the virus have not been vaccinated, and are suffering a more mild illness than at the start of this year, which leaves them needing only a few days of care before they are discharged.
Sir David said: ‘I’m very reluctant to say that we should not go out of lockdown on June 21, but I think the figures are in now, and it will be wise for the Government to announce right away a delay in opening, just so that we can all plan for the post June 21 period.’
He insisted rising hospitalisations would mean that ‘intensive care is needed for a significant proportion of our population today’.
The top scientist also called for the jabbing drive to be expanded to over-12s as soon as possible to help limit the spread of the virus in the community. He was echoed by an expert in global public health at Edinburgh University, Professor Devi Sridhar, who said the drive must be sped up to avoid yet more disruption to children’s education in the Autumn.
The national programme is set to expand to under-30s this week, sources say, after inoculating more than 39.3million Britons with at least one dose — of three in four adults — but under-18s are not currently permitted to get the inoculation.
Britain’s medical regulator approved the Pfizer’s jabfor over-12s last week, but the Government’s top scientists are still mulling over whether it would be ethical to give the jab to this age group.
It comes after Tory MPs reacted with fury last night after Matt Hancock said he was ‘absolutely open’ to delaying Freedom Day.
The Health Secretary refused to rule out keeping face masks and home working beyond June 21, when the Government had hoped to remove all legal limits on social contact.
Mr Hancock said the unlocking could be pushed back if the data called for it – amid suggestions there could be a two-week delay. But his downbeat comments triggered anger among senior backbenchers.
Tory MP Sir Desmond Swayne said ministers were ‘wasting the advantages afforded by the success of vaccinations’.
He added: ‘The original mission statement was to save lives by protecting the NHS. We’ve done that.
‘The more it moves the goalposts, the more people will be made redundant.’
The Daily Telegraph today reported that measures including face masks, social distancing and working from home were likely to remain in place past June 21 due to lingering concern over the Indian variant.
Ministers are making plans to vaccinate children aged 12 and over as early as August, the Daily Mail understands.
The Government’s key advisory group on vaccines will advise in the coming weeks on how to proceed with the rollout. But plans are afoot to give jabs to secondary school pupils before the end of the summer holidays if it is recommended by the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation (JCVI).
Last week the UK’s Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency approved the use of the Pfizer vaccine in those aged 12-15.
Yesterday Matt Hancock said there were ‘plenty of good reasons’ for inoculating children, despite it being ‘very rare’ that young people are ‘very negatively’ affected by the virus.
The Health Secretary told Sky News’ Trevor Phillips on Sunday programme: ‘The spread among children does have an impact on others and, critically, we know how much it disrupts education as well. There is this problem of long Covid in some children who test positive.
‘So, there are plenty of good reasons to do this but we will also want to be very careful and listen to the scientific advice on exactly what approach to take.’
Mr Hancock also confirmed that adults under the age of 30 will be invited to book their vaccine appointment from this week. The Government has set a target for every adult in the UK to be offered a first dose by the end of July, and expects all adults over 50 to have been offered two doses by June 21.
Mr Hancock said the vaccines had ‘severed but not broken’ the link between a rise in cases and an increase in the number of people being admitted to hospital. He said: ‘The majority of people going into hospital right now are unvaccinated.’
The Royal College of General Practitioners said that in some areas, GPs have already vaccinated all those eligible and so have already moved to the under-30s cohort.
The news comes as people who have been contacted to bring forward their second vaccine appointment are being urged to rebook as soon as possible, in a bid to combat the spread of the Indian strain.
The JCVI recommended in May that the second dose interval should be reduced from 12 weeks to eight for those aged 50 and over, as well as the clinically vulnerable.
More than 40million people across the UK have so far had a first jab.
Sir David told Sky News England’s Freedom Day should be delayed by a ‘few weeks’.
Asked how long the delay should be, he said: ‘I would give a few weeks’ delay and see how the fingers are emerging.
‘So, I don’t know how long.
‘As the Prime Minister has said, it’s data, not dates, that we should be governed by, and that’s response as well.’
The scientist, who also chairs Independent SAGE, added the roll out should be expanded more quickly amid rising cases.
He said: ‘The Pfizer vaccine has already been given the green light in this country to over 12-year-olds. I think we should run that programme forward quickly.
‘But we’re opening schools today and the Government has said 12 to 18-year-olds no longer need to wear face masks at school – I don’t think that was a wise thing to do and I do hope the Government will rethink this in the light of the current figures.’
He added: ‘Let me ask you, if I may, to ask the Government, are they actually believing in herd immunity amongst school children?
‘Is that why they’re saying, ‘take masks off it’, so that the disease spreads rapidly and they all become immune by having had the disease?
‘If that is a policy, shouldn’t we be honest with the public, and tell us that is the policy?
‘I believe that herd immunity was the policy from the beginning back in February, March last year, so have we returned to that now with the high vaccination level?’
Professor Sridhar told Good Morning Britain: ‘If we want schools to continue without disruption in the autumn and lift restrictions so children can have a normal experience, we need to vaccinate them, and if we wait and watch for the evidence it will be too late in the next few weeks.
‘We have the supply – it’s not a large amount, it’s a couple of million doses to cover that population of 12-plus.
‘And we can’t use AstraZeneca – the main supply we have – in younger age groups, so we should export AstraZeneca and help countries abroad, send those doses, as well as focusing on our adolescents to make sure they don’t have another year disrupted, because that would be an absolute shame.’
She added: ‘Children can still get long Covid and can still be chronically ill from this.
‘Given that we know children can transmit, where we are going to see problems going forward is not going to be in care homes, it’s not going to be in hospitals, it’s going to be in schools, because this is where you’re going to see large groups of unvaccinated kids together, and we are going to have outbreaks.
‘We might as well just do it, roll it out in the summer, get those kids covered so secondary schools can go back, normally, this autumn.
‘I think it’d be a huge shame for backing blended learning or having kids doing home learning in the autumn.’
The Government has said it will decide on whether or not to extend the current restrictions beyond June 21 a week today.
Sources told the Daily Telegraph the decision hinged on the impact of the Indian variant on hospitalisations.
A source told the newspaper: ‘The scientists are more in favour of a two-week extension and that is certainly one of the options that has been put in the papers for ministers.’
It reported that the Government was concerned over a faster-than expected increase in Covid cases.
But sources said the absence of a spike in hospitalisations would reassure ministers when making the decision next week.
Former Tory Cabinet minister David Jones said last night: ‘Matt Hancock has acknowledged that most people in hospital [with Covid-19] have not been vaccinated.
‘The answer is therefore to get as many people as possible vaccinated as quickly as possible.
‘It is not to delay the lifting of lockdown, with the attendant damage to people’s mental and physical wellbeing and to the economy.’
Former Cabinet minister Theresa Villiers called on the Government to ‘give us as much freedom as possible’ – with priority given to weddings, events and hospitality.
She said that while ‘most people’ could live with face coverings and some travel restrictions, ‘we’ve got to allow the hospitality business to open up again fully’.
Senior Tory MP Sir Geoffrey Clifton-Brown said there was ‘increasing frustration’ among his colleagues over the restrictions.
He added: ‘We’ve got to be really, really careful about getting panicked about every variant that comes along until we are absolutely sure there is one that is going to defeat the vaccine.’
The MPs’ warnings were echoed by UK Hospitality chief executive Kate Nicholls, who said the ‘ongoing uncertainty’ was causing ‘significant distress’ to the sector, especially as ‘healthcare data does not indicate a need for deviation’.
The evidence ‘demonstrates that the vaccination programme is working and breaking the link between cases and hospitalisations and deaths’, she said.
‘It is crucial that the Government commits to dropping the restrictions on June 21.
Any delay in the roadmap would have a devastating effect on an already fragile sector.’
The wedding industry is also desperately seeking clarity on whether the 30-person cap on guests will be removed this month.
People line up to receive a vaccination on June 6, 2021 in Stanmore, Greater London
UK Weddings Taskforce spokesman Sarah Haywood said: ‘It is unacceptable to just say we have to wait because an industry like ours doesn’t have a seven-day ramp-up window – it’s much longer than that.’
While UK cases have been rising in recent weeks, fuelled by the Indian variant, hospital admissions have remained flat.
Official data shows that Britons who have received two vaccine doses make up less than 5 per cent of those hospitalised with the new strain.
And around two-thirds of people attending A&E with the variant do not even need to spend the night in hospital.
Another 5,341 lab-confirmed cases of coronavirus were recorded in the UK yesterday and a further four deaths were announced, down from six a week earlier.
Mr Hancock was asked yesterday whether the removal of restrictions on June 21 could be postponed if data on the Indian variant worsens.
‘We are absolutely open to doing that if that’s what needs to happen,’ he told BBC One’s The Andrew Marr Show.
‘We said in the roadmap that June 21 is the date by which we would not take step four before that date and that we would look at the data. That is exactly what we are doing.’
Asked if the wearing of face coverings and work-from-home measures could continue in the long-term, the Health Secretary added: ‘Yes, I wouldn’t rule that out.’
Ministers will assess data this week ahead of an announcement, expected next Monday, on whether to proceed with the unlocking the following week.
Labour yesterday signalled it could support some restrictions remaining in place.
Education spokesman Kate Green said: ‘If we have to maintain some protective measures beyond June 21, that is what the Government should do, but I think it is really important that it’s a decision taken on the basis of the data.’
Liberal Democrat health spokesman Munira Wilson urged ministers to ‘remain cautious, especially given rising case numbers, and to follow the evidence before making a final decision about opening up’.
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