RELAXING lockdown is a "very big step" that will trigger a surge in cases and deaths, a Sage expert has warned.
Professor Andrew Hayward, of University College London (UCL), said there are uncertainties around the impact of reopening schools and shops.
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The infectious disease epidemiologist, speaking to Times Radio in a personal capacity, said these are "very big steps" and "we don't really understand what impact they will have on transmission".
He said there are "very sizeable numbers of people" who are "vulnerable to ending up in hospital and dying".
Prof Hayward added: "And that's still going to be the case for a while.
"Although the vaccines clearly take the extreme out of that, and will stop us getting hundreds of thousands of cases, there's still possibilities for us to get tens of thousands of hospitalisations and very many deaths if we relax too quickly."
'RIGHT TO BE CAUTIOUS'
He said he agrees that there needs to be a five-week period between steps and it is "right to take this cautious approach", adding: "It's taken a long time for us to learn to be cautious in this respect; I don't think it's time to return to a more risky approach."
Asked about a surge of infections in the winter, he said: "What the vaccine should do is take out the possibility of that surge leading to, say, over 100,000 deaths.
"I think that's unlikely… we're going to be much more likely to be talking in the tens of thousands of deaths and hopefully in the low tens of thousands of deaths.
"That sounds terrible but actually that's not so dissimilar to what we put up with every year for flu and other respiratory infections."
It comes after Professor Chris Whitty said the UK will face an inevitable surge in Covid cases as measures start being lifted.
England's Chief Medical Officer warned that many restrictions must stay in place at least until June, saying: “If you open up too fast, a lot more people die.”
And he said the spike in infections would be much lower if lockdown ended later in the year when most of the country has been jabbed.
Although the jabs rollout will help to limit the number of deaths during the expected new surge, fatalities will still occur in unvaccinated Brits and in those for whom the shot has not worked, he added.
Prof Whitty was challenged by MPs on whether “data, not dates” was just a slogan — and asked if lockdown could end sooner in light of plummeting cases.
But speaking to the Commons Science and Technology Committee yesterday, he said a slow release was essential.
The top doc told MPs: “It’s pretty doubtful you are going to be in a position where you will be able to say, ‘This data look so fantastically better, please take more risks here’. That seems a very unlikely situation.
“The history of this is not full of countries and individual leaders wishing they had done more, faster.
“It’s full of leaders who wished they had acted quicker and then been more careful as they take things off.”
DRIVING A SURGE
He said the situation could “turn bad” very quickly if a close eye is not kept on it — and pointed to parts of Europe, where cases have begun rising again.
Prof Whitty added: “Remember that the great majority of those who will drive a surge in transmission are not yet vaccinated and will not be vaccinated by Easter.”
Schools re-opened on Monday, with the next major easing of measures pencilled in for April 12 when gyms, hairdressers and outdoor and takeaway pints at pubs resume.
Indoor mixing can take place from May 17 under Boris Johnson’s plans, while unrestricted social contact is due to return on June 21.
The chief medical officer also warned Covid will remain a problem even once the majority of the UK population has been jabbed.
Prof Whitty said: “It is really important we do not give any impression that what we are expecting is this just goes away and there is no further deaths.
“That is not realistic and I think to pretend that to the British public would be completely wrong.”
His views were supported by the Government’s chief scientific adviser Sir Patrick Vallance, who told the committee a “zero Covid” strategy was not possible.
He added: “Our focus needs to be on reducing the levels we have. That is the key point — to keep things under control.
“I do not think that zero Covid is possible. I think there’s nothing to suggest that this virus will go away, at least any time soon. It’s going to be there, circulating.”
Covid fatalities in those aged 80 or above have fallen by 79 per cent in just five weeks, according to the Office for National Statistics, and by 70 per cent for the over-70s.
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