Prof Chris Whitty was speaking as Prime Minister Boris Johnson confirmed he was postponing the ending of England’s lockdown, with July 19 now earmarked for lifting the remaining restrictions rather than June 21.
Prof Whitty warned that the NHS could ‘run into trouble’ if the number of people being admitted to hospital with Covid continued on an ‘exponential path’.
At a Downing Street press conference today, Monday, June 14, he said rates of hospitalisation were low in all parts of the country, but there was a ‘rapid rise’ particularly in the North West with the rest of England following.
Numbers were ‘still relatively modest compared to the capacity of the NHS’, he added: “But several doubling times, a relatively small number of doubling times and you start getting to really quite large numbers.”
Prof Whitty said cases were increasing across the country, and that though the link between infections and people being admitted to hospital had been substantially weakened, “it has not been completely stopped” and hospital admissions were following a rise in cases but with a delay.
“So although we don’t think an immediate overwhelming of the NHS is likely, if this continues on an exponential path, and in particular if that then accelerated further due to further loosening, then we would run into trouble in a relatively small number of doubling times,” he said.
After a delay to the lifting of restrictions “we will have a situation where a much higher proportion of people have been double vaccinated or vaccinated”.
He added: “We will be coming up to school holidays. We all want to stress that at that stage rates will be higher than they are at the moment.
“But the next four weeks will reduce significantly the risk of a very high peak which could cause significant problems in terms of pressure on the NHS and all the knock-on effects of that and direct deaths from Covid.”
Mr Johnson said the spread of the Delta variant meant ‘we have obviously faced a very difficult choice’ but a delay in implementing Step 4 of the Government’s coronavirus roadmap would give time to step up the vaccination programme.
“It’s unmistakably clear the vaccines are working and the sheer scale of the vaccine roll-out has made our position incomparably better than in previous waves,” he said.
“But now is the time to ease off the accelerator, because by being cautious now we have the chance in the next four weeks to save many thousands of lives by vaccinating millions more people.
“We can simply keep going with all of Step 4 on June 21, even though there is a real possibility that the virus will outrun the vaccines and that thousands more deaths would ensue which could otherwise have been avoided.
“Or else we can give the NHS a few more crucial weeks to get those remaining jabs into the arms of those who need them.
“And since today I cannot say that that we have met all our four tests for proceeding with Step 4 on June 21, I think it is sensible to wait just a little longer.”
By July 19, around two-thirds of the adult population would have received two jabs, including all over-50s, the vulnerable and health and care workers, along with over-40s who had received a first dose by mid-May.
And ministers were bringing forward their target of ensuring all over-18s in the country have been offered a first jab to July 19.
Mr Johnson held out hope the restrictions could be lifted sooner: “We will monitor the position every day and if, after two weeks, we have concluded that the risk has diminished then we reserve the possibility of proceeding to step four, and a full opening, sooner,” he said.
And he added he was ‘confident’ no more than four weeks would be needed and that restrictions would not go beyond July 19.
He said weddings would be able to go ahead with more than 30 guests – provided social distancing was in place – and the same provisions would apply to wakes.
“We will continue to pilot events such as Euro 2020 and some theatrical performances,” he said, indicating they will be allowed larger crowds than under the restrictions currently in place elsewhere as part of the research programme,” he added.