Boris Johnson is under increasing pressure to delay the final easing of lockdown restrictions in the UK on 21 June amid mounting concern over the spread of the Delta variant of the coronavirus, first detected in India.
The new strain of Covid-19 caused cases to uptick in the northwest of England, parts of the Midlands and in London during May and into the first week of June, prompting fears that the prime minister pressing ahead with his roadmap to bring an end to precautionary measures could have disastrous consequences.
The UK recorded 5,341 new infections on Sunday as the caseload continues to increase, plus four more deaths within 28 days of testing positive, bringing the total number of fatalities since the pandemic began to 127,840.
But while the recent rise is unquestionably worrying, does it actually amount to a third wave?
Sir David King, former chief scientific adviser to the government and chair of the independent Sage group, told Sky News on Monday morning the current Covid-19 figures are “evidence of another wave appearing”.
“There are 5,300 new cases of the disease per day in the United Kingdom and we're up about 2,000 on last week,” he said.
“Now we’ve been discussing whether or not we're going into a serious third wave and I don't think we can possibly wait any longer. This is the evidence of another wave appearing.”
The question was previously put to microbiologist Professor Ravi Gupta – a member of the New and Emerging Respiratory Virus Threats Advisory Group (Nervtag), which advises the government – on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme on Bank Holiday Monday and he answered likewise: “Yes, there has been exponential growth in the number of the new cases and at least three-quarters of them are the new variant.
“Of course the numbers of cases are relatively low at the moment – all waves start with low numbers of cases that grumble in the background and then become explosive, so the key here is that what we are seeing here is the signs of an early wave.”
He added: “It will probably take longer than earlier waves to emerge because of the fact that we do have quite high levels of vaccination in the population, so there may be a false sense of security for some time, and that’s our concern.”
Professor Gupta pointed out that Mr Johnson’s roadmap was formulated before the existence of the more transmissible variant became unknown and advocated delaying the final easing by “a few weeks” to allow more people to be vaccinated against it.
“If you look at the costs and benefits of getting it wrong, I think it is heavily in favour of delay, so I think that's the key thing,” the University of Cambridge expert said
“People are not saying we should abandon the 21 June date altogether but just to delay it by a few weeks while we gather more intelligence and we can look at the trajectory in a clearer way.”
On Times Radio, Professor Adam Finn of the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation went further and questioned whether the restrictions already lifted might need to be reimposed.
“We’d all be better off doing everything we can to minimise that risk so that we don’t get to a position where we have to really go backwards in terms of the restrictions that we’re all having to endure,” he said on Monday.
The experts are broadly in agreement about the threat posed by the Delta variant and the risk of a major setback being caused by ending restrictions prematurely.
Martin McKee, a professor of European public health at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, told The Guardian that he also believes a third wave has already begun.
“We can already see that the current measures are not stopping cases rising rapidly in many parts of the country. This looks very much as if we are now early in a third wave,” he said.
“Unless there is a miracle, opening up further in June is a huge risk. The rise in cases we are seeing now should cause a reassessment of the most recent relaxation.”
James Naismith, a professor of structural biology at the University of Oxford, likewise told the AP news agency: “It seems almost certain that we will face a third episode of rising Covid-19 infections.
“It seems likely that the Indian variant will mostly confine itself to the unvaccinated younger population. It is much less likely to cause serious disease in this group. However, less likely is not the same as zero. With large enough numbers of infections, appreciable numbers will get seriously ill.”
It is feared that the NHS could once again be left struggling to cope in the event of a fresh explosion of cases as the health service begins the difficult job of addressing its non-Covid workload, which has piled up over the course of the pandemic as operations and treatments were sidelined in order to prioritise bringing the outbreak under control.
Staff have already come forward to warn that frontline workers in particular have been “broken” by the pandemic and are “close to burnout”.
“Everyone in the NHS at the moment is kind of terrified,” said Dr Megan Smith, legal and policy officer for campaign group EveryDoctor.
Dr Emily Bell, a GP from the northwest of England, added: “We know there's still a lot of unclear messaging going on, and I think unfortunately people’s behaviour has been relaxing.”
“The NHS is still in crisis and we cannot cope as it is. Unlocking poses a real threat to it just collapsing, and my biggest concern is patient safety.”
Downing Street has so far said it is too soon to make a call on delaying the 21 June unlocking and that more data is needed to determine the severity of the situation.
Health secretary Matt Hancock told Sky on Sunday: “It is too early to make a final decision. We’ll keep watching the data for another week or so and, critically, watching that link on the number of cases to the number of people who end up in hospital.
“And it is absolutely true that the number of people ending up in hospital is broadly flat at the moment.”
When did the first and second waves begin?
Here’s a reminder of how the previous two tsunamis of infections came crashing down on these shores last year.
Following the virus’s outbreak in the city of Wuhan in China towards the end of 2019, it gradually spread from Asia to the Mediterrean, with Italy the first European nation to be badly hit.
In the first half of March 2020, the threat posed by coronavirus was becoming clear but the UK government was unsure how best to go about tackling it - as the PM’s adviser Dominic Cummings made clear in his parliamentary testimony last week.
On 23 March, Mr Johnson reluctantly announced the first full national lockdown, telling the public they will only be allowed to leave their homes for limited reasons, including food shopping, exercise once per day, medical need and travelling for work when absolutely necessary. All shops selling non-essential goods were told to close, while gatherings of more than two people in public were banned.
After Mr Johnson himself had been hospitalised with Covid-19, he announced the first easing on 10 May, followed by more as the summer progressed.
But, by 30 July, Mr Hancock was warning of a “second wave starting to roll across Europe”. Six weeks later, on 18 September, Mr Johnson said the next round had reached Britain and introduced new restrictions later that week to contain its spread, stopping short of a second national lockdown. A total of 6,634 new coronavirus cases were recorded on 24 September, at that point the highest single-day figure since the outbreak began.
The tier system was then introduced on 12 October before being replaced by a new month-long second national lockdown between November and December, before a respite for the Christmas holidays.
A third national lockdown followed on 4 January as cases soared, before the situation gradually eased again and enabled the PM to announce his roadmap out of restrictions on 22 February, which we are currently on course to reach the end of on 21 June, unless the government does change tack in response to the aggressive Delta variant.
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