There is a “significant chance” the government’s target of lifting remaining lockdown restrictions from 21 June will change, a government adviser has told Sky News.
Professor Adam Finn, a member of the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation (JCVI), cast doubt on whether Prime Minister Boris Johnson will be able to proceed with his timetable for easing COVID rules as planned.
He told Sky News that “things are much more up in the air” than they were earlier this month, due to the spread of the Indian variant of coronavirus in the UK.
Stage four of Mr Johnson’s roadmap for lifting lockdown restrictions – when the prime minister aims to remove all legal limits on social contact – is scheduled to take place from 21 June.
But Prof Finn warned this was now “very much open to question” as he warned of England having to return to a full lockdown if the pace of reopening was later realised to have been too fast.
His warning came as people flocked to beaches, parks and beer gardens to enjoy the bank holiday sunshine on what was expected to be the hottest day of the year so far.
Police and local councils urged people to stick to current social distancing rules and to avoid large crowds as they soaked up the sun.
“In a way, I think, the dates [of the roadmap] all the way through were created just to give everyone some kind of sense of structure,” Prof Finn said.
“But they were always qualified as being based on what actually happened and that they could change. I think there’s a significant chance that it could change.
“We’re better off being cautious at this point and being able to progressively unlock ourselves than to overdo it and then end up having to lockdown fully all over again.”
Prof Finn, of the University of Bristol, suggested it would be a “mistake” to “stick slavishly to a timetable that was set some months ago and not react to the situation as we now find ourselves in”.
“If we wake up in July saying we made a terrible error it will have been because we didn’t go cautiously enough and we’ve got a situation on our hands where everything goes backwards,” he added.
“If we wake up in the middle of July and realise we were too cautious and, in fact, we could have relaxed things sooner – well I think that’s a mistake we can all live with because we can then move forward and say ‘well done us, at least we took care and were careful’.
“The mistake is going to be to rush forwards and then fall flat on our faces by rushing forwards too fast.”
Prof Finn said the country was “well advanced” with the COVID vaccination programme, but that the public should be “really concerned” about not adapting to the impact of the Indian variant.
“I’m afraid we do have to worry because we are trying to get to grips with the characteristics of this new variant that is now circulating,” he said.
“The fact that it does appear to be significantly more infectious means we can expect to see larger numbers of cases and for the virus to be able to reach people that the old variant might not be able to reach, who are still vulnerable.”
Meanwhile, another government adviser warned the country was on a “knife-edge” over the 21 June date for a full reopening.
Susan Michie, a professor of health psychology at University College London who sits on government advisory group Scientific Pandemic Insights Group on Behaviours (SPI-B), told Sky News: “We’re on a knife-edge.
“We could go either way with this new variant.
“Either it could run away as it did before Christmas, which would be extremely serious and we’d have to have more restrictions, or potentially it could be contained.
“But that does mean everybody needs to be cautious right now. Everybody’s behaviour could potentially make the difference.
“So the key thing at the moment is for people to do their socialising outdoors, and if people are inside, make sure windows and doors are open.”
After weeks of being stuck indoors due to COVID-19 restrictions and recent heavy downpours, millions of Britons have taken advantage of the weekend sunshine.
Monday was expected to bring the warmest weather of the year so far with temperatures predicted to hit 25C.
The seaside town of Blackpool has been longing for tourists and good weather, following a dreadful year economically because of the pandemic.
And Blackpool Council was among a number of local authorities to urge people to remember the existing COVID rules and to “enjoy yourselves safely”.
Meanwhile, Thanet Council advised those visiting the Kent seaside resorts of Broadstairs, Margate and Ramsgate to “avoid crowds or consider coming back another time” if beaches were busy.
“We’re not back to normal just yet!” the council posted on Twitter.
Wiltshire Police urged people to “do everything you can to stay safe” and reminded people to stick to a group of six, or two households, if gathering indoors.
On Sunday, Blackpool was packed with people travelling from far and wide to enjoy the town’s attractions.
Andy Hygate, operations director of Blackpool Pleasure Beach, told Sky News: “We’ve seen how busy it has been this weekend and this is what a seaside resort should be like – people enjoying themselves, having ice creams on the beach.
“To see that back and everything that supports the economy and the employment in the town is really important to us and the wider resort.”
Many people who had summer holidays cancelled or couldn’t book because of travel restrictions, opted to use this weekend for a staycation.
Natalie Armstrong and her family travelled from Birmingham to Blackpool on Friday.
She said: “(The lockdown) been awful for everyone – the kids have been stuck in the house with the same routines, so it’s really nice to finally get away with all the family this weekend.
“We’re making sure we’re following all the rules, hand sanitising, wearing our face masks, but it’s just nice to finally do something a bit normal.”
Jamie Pye, who was also in Blackpool, said: “It’s amazing to be back and do things.
“For so long we haven’t been able to see friends and family. I forgot what it was like to be in a pub, go to a football match – it’s like a new world again.”