Ministers want all over-50s to get second coronavirus jabs by June 21 amid fears over whether higher infection rates could stop ‘freedom day’ going ahead.
Vaccines minister Nadhim Zahawi highlighted the target as he said the government will wait for the latest data on June 14 before deciding whether to proceed with the unlocking as planned.
Government advisers have been warning that Boris Johnson is ‘likely’ to scale back the axing restrictions next month, with signs that the order to work from home where possible and wear face masks could stay in place.
NHS Providers chief executive Chris Hopson said today that hospitals are under ‘worrying’ pressure with uncertainty over the transmissibility of the Indian variant and the number of people not fully vaccinated.
Asked in interviews whether the remaining restrictions will be eased if cases are still increasing, Mr Zahawi told BBC1’s Andrew Marr Show: ‘What I’m saying to you is we have to be cautious. We have to look at the data and share it with the country.
‘Are we still vaccinating at scale? Big tick. Are the vaccines working? Yes. But are infection rates too high for us to then not be able to proceed because there are too many people getting into hospital? I don’t know the answer to it.
‘But we will know it on, hopefully on the 14th, a few more weeks.’
He said that as the virus becomes endemic ‘we’re going to have to live with a certain amount of Covid being transmitted’.
Pressed on whether there could be a partial lifting of restrictions, with mask-wearing and working from home continuing, Mr Zahawi said: ‘We need to look at the data.’
Vaccines minister Nadhim Zahawi highlighted the target as he said the government will wait for the latest data on June 14 before deciding whether to proceed with the unlocking as planned
Ministers want all over-50s to get their second coronavirus jabs by the June 21 ‘freedom day’
Current data suggest that although hospital admissions are rising in some parts of the country affected by the Indian variant, they are at a very low level compared with the winter peak.
Between May 19 and 25, 870 people went into hospital with coronavirus, an increase of 23.2 per cent compared with the previous seven days.
Meanwhile, the reproduction number – the R value – for England is 1 to 1.1, up from 0.9 and 1.1 the previous week, suggesting the epidemic is growing.
Mr Hopson warned that although hospitals were not expecting to be overwhelmed by a surge of Covid-19 cases, they were already stretched by going ‘full pelt’ on dealing with the backlog of cases built up during the pandemic and urgent care needs.
Hospitals are operating under reduced capacity due to Covid-19 restrictions and increased numbers of coronavirus patients will add to difficulties by requiring wards to be reconfigured, he added.
But he said it was ‘very significant and important’ that the evidence suggests the success of the vaccination campaign means much lower levels of hospital admissions, serious illness and death than previously experienced.
‘Significant numbers of Covid-19 hospital inpatients will adversely impact care backlog recovery,’ he said.
‘(The) current degree of pressure on hospitals is worrying especially since we saw clear summer demand surges in the two years before Covid-19.
‘But if, as evidence above suggests, success of (the) vaccination campaign means much lower levels of hospitalisation, serious illness and mortality, even with (the) new variant, that is very significant and important. This means there is a difficult decision to make for June 21.’
He also suggested the Government needs to consider the increased burden on hospitals in UK holiday hotspots in coming months with people not travelling abroad, saying one trust chief on the south coast had warned they will ‘struggle’ to meet the ‘significant extra demand’.
One adviser involved in assessing emerging figures told the Sunday Times: ‘If I was to call it now, I’d say step four is highly likely to be delayed.’
Dr Mike Tildesley, a member of the Scientific Pandemic Influenza Group on Modelling (Spi-M) Government advisory panel, said there was still ‘quite a lot of uncertainty’ around the June 21 date.
He told LBC: ‘We are starting to see signs of course that cases are going up, but at the moment we’re still obviously reporting hospital admissions and deaths at very low levels.’
He highlighted there can be a delay of a week or two between case increases and hospital admissions possibly rising, but said the country was in ‘a very different place’ to where it was in January.
Mr Johnson is expected to delay a honeymoon after his wedding as he grapples with whether the unlocking can go ahead amid rising cases of the Indian variant
He said scientists had ‘an awful lot of work to do’ to analyse data on the link between cases and hospital admissions, while bearing in mind the situation with the Indian variant, to give evidence to the Government.
And he warned that if a big wave of cases was allowed to build, that could give rise to new, more dangerous, mutations.
‘The problem is, if you have huge numbers of cases, then that increases the risk of the virus mutating, and it may be that you might get a variant emerging that all of a sudden evades the vaccines completely.’
Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer suggested the biggest risk to easing the lockdown on June 21 was ‘incompetence’ in the Government.
He said ‘weak, slow decisions’ by the Government on border policy had allowed the Indian variant to spread.