Bars and restaurants should stay shut until May, a government adviser has said.
They warn that reopening society too quickly could have a “disastrous” effect on the COVID R-rate.
A team of experts modelling the pandemic said that even if 90% of people are vaccinated against coronavirus, 10% would still be at risk of serious infection.
They argued that little is currently known about the effect of vaccines on transmission and if younger people catch coronavirus – they would be at risk of long COVID.
For these reasons the experts said they believed that restrictions should be lifted slowly, with various scenarios modelling what would happen if lockdowns lasted until the winter.
Releasing all measures at the end of April once all over-50s, those in high risk groups and frontline health and social workers are vaccinated, could still lead to a huge surge in cases, they said.
Dr Marc Baguelin, from Imperial College London, who sits on the Scientific Pandemic Influenza Group on Modelling (SPI-M), a sub-group of Sage, said the premature opening of the hospitality sector would lead to a “bump” in COVID-19 cases.
Speaking on BBC Radio 4’s World at One programme, he said: “We looked at the partial reopening and the increase in the R number – it will generate an increase in the R number – the extent of which we don’t know really.
“Something of this scale, if it was to happen earlier than May, would generate a bump in transmission, which is already really bad.
“So you have a lot of pressure on hospitals, you will have another wave of some extent.
“At best you will keep on having a very, very unsustainable level of pressure on the NHS.”
Modelling indicates that a more gradual relaxation of controls is far less risky, and could provide an exit without overwhelming the health service.
The news came on the day that NHS England regional medical director for London Dr Vin Diwakar said he believed there was a “glimmer of hope” that lockdown measures were relieving pressure on hospitals.
He told the Downing Street coronavirus briefing: “It’s very early but we are seeing some glimmers of the impact of lockdown in the NHS.
“In general and acute beds, in the 111 service and the 999 service – we have seen the numbers of people with COVID falling.”
But he warned that this drop was not yet translating to a fall in the number of people in intensive care.
He added: “It has not fed through to intensive care, the most seriously ill people.
“That is because in this illness people become more unwell at about seven-10 days in – that’s when they deteriorate and go into hospital and may need intensive care.”
Researchers say, that under the most optimistic assumptions about vaccine rollout, coverage and efficacy, it will be several months before the population immunity threshold is reached in the UK.
Conservative MPs have put pressure on Boris Johnson to ignore scientific advice to keep pubs and restaurants shut until May, as the hospitality sector warned such measures could kill off more businesses.
Mark Harper, chairman of the COVID Recovery Group (CRG) – made up of lockdown-sceptic Tory MPs – said the government “must start easing restrictions” by early March when the most vulnerable will have a level of immunity against coronavirus after receiving their vaccine.
Industry chiefs have painted a bleak picture to what such an elongation of lockdown controls could do to the sector, with protests that “there would be very little left” once restrictions are finally lifted.
Labour has joined the call for extra cash support for the hospitality industry should restrictions last beyond April.
Shadow business minister Lucy Powell said: “We’ve already seen the worst recession of any major economy, and unless ministers put in place a comprehensive, long-term plan to give businesses a shot in the arm, we’ll see huge numbers going bust, with the loss of tens of thousands of jobs and livelihoods as a result of government failure.”
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