Pressure mounts to delay 'freedom day' as Covid cases reach two-month high

Boris Johnson is facing pressure to delay the final lifting of restrictions on June 21 amid growing case rates driven by the India variant.

The UK recorded 4,182 Covid-19 cases on Friday – more than double the amount of this time last week and the highest daily number since the end of March.

The R number has risen back above the crucial figure of 1, meaning the virus is spreading exponentially, while the growth rate suggests cases could be rising by 3% each day.

Experts have warned the India strain is now dominant across the country and thriving in regions with low vaccine takeup.

Today it was announced that surge testing is being rolled out in four new areas of Lancashire due to spikes in cases of the B.1.617.2.

Health officials said all cases have been contacted and told to isolate and that testing and sequencing will be launched in Burnley, Pendle, Hyndburn and Rossendale in a bid to stop the virus spreading.

Officials are hoping testing and vaccinations can stamp out the spread of the India variant, which is making up three quarters of all new cases.

Hotspots are mostly concentrated in London and the North West, with hospitalisations also rising in some parts, including Bolton.

Boris Johnson has refused to rule out delaying plans to relax lockdown on June 21 and said on Thursday that England ‘may need to wait’ to be given more freedoms.

Ministers always expected cases to increase when restrictions were eased, and believe vaccines will stop the NHS from being overwhelmed once again.

Downing Street insists that it is too early to say whether the prime minister will be able to give the go-ahead on June 14 for the removal of most remaining curbs a week later.

But scientists are increasingly calling for caution until more people are vaccinated.

Professor Christina Pagel, a member of the government’s scientific advisory group (SAGE) said she doesn’t think ‘we are on course’ for the final lifting of lockdown next month.

She said current data is ‘concerning’ and suggested pushing the freedom day back until the end of July.

She said: ‘If we can just delay international travel, delay stage 4 of the roadmap until we have a much higher proportion of people vaccinated with two doses, we’re in a much, much better position.

‘We’re only two months away from that, it’s not long to wait. What I don’t want is for us to have new restrictions.’

Her concerns have been echoed by other scientists and ministers who have raised doubts about June 21st.

Epidemiologist Prof Neil Ferguson said the reopening of society is now ‘in the balance’.

Dr Jenny Harries agreed, saying England was ‘on the cusp at the moment’ over whether rising cases reflected the variant taking off or whether there was a rise because more cases are being hunted for and detected, with more socialising also now permitted.

A Cambridge professor, whose argument against herd immunity helped trigger England’s first lockdown last March, has also voiced concerns about the risks of easing restrictions next month.

Prof Tim Gowers said ‘things will get bad very, very quickly’ after June 21 if the government misjudges factors such as the spread of new Covid variants.

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He added: ‘The downside of being a bit more cautious is quite a lot smaller than the downside of getting it wrong.’

However, although hospital cases are rising in some areas, people are not as ill and deaths have stayed flat thanks to the vaccine roll-out.

Robert Dingwall, a member of the New and Emerging Respiratory Virus Threats Advisory Group, said it was ‘hard to see any reason’ why June 21 could not go ahead.

He said that those who are currently catching Covid tended to be younger and would get less sick.

Asked whether hospital admissions could get out of hand, leading to local lockdowns, he said: ‘I think we’ve got to look quite carefully at what hospitalisation means.

‘The anecdotes that the clinicians are coming up with is to say these are not really, really sick people like they were seeing in January, so more people who just need a little bit of extra help with breathing, they come in, they get oxygen and dexamethasone for maybe three or four days, and then they go home again.

‘And in that sense I think hospitalisations may not be a very good indicator of the severity of these infections.’

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