Boris Johnson faces a tough decision to end England’s lockdown on June 21, with hospitals already under “worrying” pressure, a health chief has warned.
The continued spread of the Indian coronavirus variant has cast doubt on the ability to remove the restrictions, with ministers considering keeping some measures – such as the continued use of face masks and advice on working from home – in place.
NHS Providers chief executive Chris Hopson said hospital bosses were concerned about the transmissibility of the B1617.2 variant and the large number of people who have yet to receive doses of the vaccine.
He warned that while hospitals did not expect to be swamped by a wave of Covid-19 cases, they were already stretched out going “hard” to deal with the backlog of cases built up during the pandemic and urgent care needs.
Hospitals are operating with reduced capacity due to Covid-19 restrictions and the increase in the number of coronavirus patients will add to the difficulties by requiring the reconfiguration of services, he added.
But he said it was “very significant and important” that the evidence suggests that the success of the vaccination campaign means much lower levels of hospital admissions, serious illness and death than before.
“A significant number of Covid-19 hospital patients will have a negative impact on the recovery of the backlog of care,” he said.
“(The) current degree of pressure on hospitals is concerning, especially since we have seen a marked increase in summer demand in the two years leading up to Covid-19.
“But if, as the evidence above suggests, the success of (the) vaccination campaign means much lower levels of hospitalization, severe illness and mortality, even with (the) new variant, it is very meaningful and important. This means that there is a difficult decision to be made for June 21.
He also suggested the government should take into account the increased burden on hospitals in UK hot spots in the coming months with people not traveling abroad, saying a trusted leader on the south coast had warned that they would “struggle” to meet “significant additional demand”.
Dr Mike Tildesley, a member of the government advisory group of the Scientific Pandemic Influenza Group on Modeling (Spi-M), said there was still “a lot of uncertainty” around the June 21 date.
He told LBC: “We are of course starting to see signs of an increase in cases, but at the moment we are still obviously reporting hospitalizations and deaths at very low levels. “
He stressed that there could be a delay of a week or two between the increase in cases and the possible increase in hospital admissions, but said the country was in “a very different place” from. the one he was in in January.
He said scientists had “a lot of work to do” to analyze data on the link between cases and hospital admissions, while keeping in mind the situation of the Indian variant, to provide evidence. to the government.
And he warned that if a big wave of cases were allowed to form, it could lead to more dangerous new mutations.
“The problem is, if you have a large number of cases, it increases the risk of the virus mutating, and you may get an emerging variant that all of a sudden goes completely off the vaccine. “
Vaccines Minister Nadhim Zahawi said the government would wait for the latest data on June 14 before deciding to continue the following week.
He said the government aimed to provide two doses of the vaccine to everyone over 50 by June 21, but told Times Radio “I could do with more supply” because “I will be. able to protect more people faster ”.
When asked if the remaining restrictions could be relaxed if cases continued to rise, he told BBC1’s Andrew Marr Show: “What I’m telling you is that we have to be careful. We need to look at the data and share it with the country.
“Are we still vaccinating on a large scale? Big tick. Do vaccines work? Yes. But are the infection rates too high that we can’t continue because there are too many people hospitalized? I don’t know the answer.
“But we’ll find out on the 14th, hopefully a few more weeks. “
He said as the virus becomes endemic, “we will have to live with a certain amount of transmitted Covid.”
Pressed on whether there could be a partial lifting of the restrictions, with masks continuing to wear and working from home, Mr Zahawi said: “We need to look at the data. “
Labor leader Sir Keir Starmer has suggested the biggest risk in easing the lockdown on June 21 was “incompetence” in government.
He said that “weak and slow decisions” by the government on border policy had allowed the Indian variant to spread.
Current data suggests that although hospital admissions are increasing in parts of the country affected by the Indian variant, they are at a very low level compared to the winter peak.
Between May 19 and May 25, 870 people went to hospital with coronavirus, an increase of 23.2% from the previous seven days.
Meanwhile, the reproduction number – the R-value – for England is 1 to 1.1, down from 0.9 and 1.1 the week before, suggesting the outbreak is growing.