Boris Johnson is coming under pressure to delay lifting COVID restrictions on 21 June after several scientists urged him to – and Nicola Sturgeon paused lockdown easing in Scotland.
The prime minister and his senior ministers have said they are ruling nothing out ahead of 14 June, when they will make a decision about opening up a week later as part of step four of the roadmap out of lockdown – which will involve the removal of social contact limits and the opening of nightclubs and large events.
Several scientists have called for step four to be delayed by a few weeks due to the rising number of cases of the Indian COVID variant, which is more transmissible than previous variants.
And Scotland’s first minister has delayed the easing of COVID measures for many parts of the nation, making it difficult for the PM to not follow suit.
Sky News has looked at what Mr Johnson’s options are.
Continue with step four – but with some social distancing restrictions
Dr Andrew Preston, an infectious diseases microbiologist at the University of Bath, said he is “not wholly convinced the picture will be much clearer if we wait a week or so”.
“I would probably carry on with opening up because large parts have already done anyway since 17 May, but I’d still have mask wearing, still some social distancing measures but you don’t have to go all out,” he said.
“This time last year we said if vaccines could reduce the virus down to something like a flu then that would be great – we now have that.
“I think we’ll have to accept the virus is something we live with at some point, unless we say variants are so deadly we have to go back to the beginning – or have a booster that works against them.”
He added that he thinks there has been “some slight cherry picking of the data” with the latest cases as “we always knew cases would increase after 17 May and we don’t know if that’s opening up or the variants”.
“We know the Indian variant is not quite as transmissible as initially thought. I’m not convinced we’ll have enough of a grasp in two weeks’ time.”
Delay step four by a few weeks
Dr Julian Tang, a consultant virologist at the University of Leicester, thinks the roadmap should be delayed as the virus is now “multiplying quickly”.
“Outbreaks start small, they have to and they get bigger more and more quickly, clearly the virus is ramping up and you’re getting into the realms of a third wave.
“If you open up completely you’re going to see bigger surges of what we see now – despite increased vaccinations and surge testing, cases are still rising in hotspots which must mean it’s rising elsewhere.”
“If you open everything up, you’ll see a bigger surge, then the government will panic and shut everything down again,” he said.
“From a purely virological point of view, you want to know what we’re doing now is going to control the virus down the line.
“At some point you’ll have to open up but that should happen when at least 70% of the population have had two doses.
“The government will have to decide what level of virus we can live with.
“Immunologists who dream of eradicating this virus are just dreaming – respiratory viruses are seasonal and none have been eradicated.”
Pause step four and review current restrictions
Virologist Dr Stephen Griffin, associate professor in the school of medicine at the University of Leeds, urged the government to “at the very least pause” moving to step four until schools break up for summer.
He said the government said four tests have to be passed to allow each stage of the lockdown to be eased, including that a new variant should not cause concern that it would change the strategy.
“It is abundantly clear that this test has not been met at present,” he said.
“I would be very worried about going ahead with plans to unlock in June.”
Dr Griffin said the Indian variant, now renamed as the Delta variant by the World Health Organisation, entered the UK due to “a porous, ineffectual border policy” which also means we are at risk of exporting it.
“Cases continue to rise exponentially and it seems spread has not been curtailed within certain hotspots,” he added.
“Also, hospitalisations are rising, with a similar lag time to what we’ve seen too many times before.
“Whilst vaccines have proven highly effective in protecting groups that have received both doses, it is the case that a significant proportion of adults along with children remain susceptible.”
The virologist said it is a “worryingly common misconception” that younger people do not become seriously unwell from COVID, and with the Indian variant being more transmissible more people could be hospitalised, putting “tremendous pressure on the NHS”.
He said the government should review the current restrictions so the vaccination schedule lines up with falling cases, as Israel did.
Face masks, social distancing and restricted numbers of people should continue so “the same mistakes as 2020” are not made.
He added: “Vaccines are the solution for richer countries like the UK, but we mustn’t let impatience cause unnecessary harm along that road.”