'Delay is likely' - Norfolk expert's fears over June 21 Covid easing

Prof Paul Hunter, from the UEA, has encouraged people to donate to the WHO's Covid-19 Response Fund

Prof Paul Hunter, from the University of East Anglia. - Credit: UEA

An expert in infectious diseases at the University of East Anglia believes it is now "likely" that the government will delay the full easing of Covid restrictions on June 21.

And Prof Paul Hunter, professor in medicine at the UEA in Norwich, said he believed the country was now in the third wave of Covid-19 infections.

Experts are divided over whether prime minister Boris Johnson should press ahead with the final stage of easing social restrictions on June 21 amid a surge in cases of the new variant first identified in India.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson during a media briefing in Downing Street.

Prime minister Boris Johnson. - Credit: PA

Prof Adam Finn, of the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation (JCVI) and Prof Ravi Gupta, a member of the New and Emerging Respiratory Virus Threats Advisory Group (Nervtag), have both suggested the government should delay.

And Prof Hunter said: "I think a delay is now likely, but my personal view is that it is not absolutely definite.

"There has been a lot of positive news around vaccination rates and there's still very good evidence that people are less likely to develop severe illness if they have been vaccinated, particularly with two doses.

"But I fear that might not be enough to protect the health services and I think we will see a delay to step four.

"There is uncertainty about how that will play out in the weeks ahead, but cases of the Indian variant have been doubling each seven to 10 days since the start of April.

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"That's offset to a degree by the fall in the Kent variant cases. But looking at the age breakdown of cases, the worrying thing is that, over the past few days, the case numbers have started to go up across all age groups.

"And that I suspect, is going to mean the delay. Even in the over 80s, there has been a 13pc increase.

"Although vaccination does reduce the chances of getting severely ill, it does not stop coronavirus completely."

Nurse Maria Alexiou preparing a Covid-19 vaccination at the new mass vaccination centre at Connaught

More than 76pc of adults in Norfolk and Waveney have had their first Covid vaccination. - Credit: Danielle Booden

Prof Hunter said the data over the next couple of weeks would be crucial and that he "hoped to be proven wrong" on his prediction that the government would delay.

He said: "A week ago, I was thinking that maybe it would still be okay for June 21, but now I am more cautious.

"I still believe we need a couple more weeks of data, but on balance I think it will be delayed, although I would happily be proved wrong."

Prof Hunter said, given how the Indian Covid-19 variant was on its way to becoming the dominant variant in the UK, it had been poor decision-making on the government's part not to put India on the red list for travel sooner.

He said that he had "no doubt" that the UK was now in the midst of the third wave of coronavirus.

He said: "The only uncertainty is how big it will get and what impact that will have on the health service."

And Prof Hunter said it was crucial that people who were invited to get vaccines took up the offer.

He said: "We cannot rely on herd immunity. That is just not going to happen.

"People might think that they're a bit nervous about the vaccine, but that everyone else is getting it, so they don't need to as they won't catch the virus.

"They are wrong. If you don't get immunised you are are not protected.

"The more people who are vaccinated, the less transmission there will be and the fewer control measures there will need to be.

"If you want British society to get back to normal then get the vaccine. The more people who don't, the more difficult that makes it."

On Tuesday, for the first time since July 30 last year, no deaths within 28 days of testing positive for Covid-19 were reported.

But, as of 9am on Tuesday, there had been a further 3,165 lab-confirmed cases in the UK.

Prof Gupta said a delay of a few weeks would be a temporary measure based on recent events, chiefly the emergence of the Indian or B.1.617.2 strain of the virus.

He said: "Even a month delay could have a big impact on the eventual outcome of this.

"As long as it's clear to people this is not an unlimited extension of the lockdown but actually just a reassessment, that would be realistic."

But Robert Dingwall, professor of sociology at Nottingham Trent University, said it was important to press ahead with the June 21 easing from a societal point of view.

He told Times Radio: "I personally don't see any case for delay ... from a societal point of view, I think it's really important that we go ahead on June 21 and I've not really seen anything in the data that would lead me to doubt that as a proposition on the evidence to date.

"I think we need to recognise the way in which levels of fear and anxiety in the population have been amplified over the last 15 months or so.

"We've got to look at the collateral damage in terms of untreated cancers, untreated heart conditions, all of the other things that people suffer from.

"We've got to think about the impact of economic damage that would be caused by further periods of delay and uncertainty."

Downing Street has indicated that Mr Johnson still sees nothing in the data to suggest the plan to end all legal lockdown restrictions on June 21 will need to be delayed.

Asked about the prime minister's plans amid warnings over the spread of the Indian variant, a No 10 spokesman said: "I was going to point to what the PM said on Thursday.

"The prime minister has said on a number of occasions that we haven't seen anything in the data but we will continue to look at the data, we will continue to look at the latest scientific evidence as we move through June towards June 21."

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