Deputy chief medical officer warns of ‘very dangerous moment’ facing UK as scientists fear lockdown eased too soon

Experts advising the government voice fears that virus is spreading too fast to lift restrictions

Lizzy Buchan
Political Correspondent
Saturday 30 May 2020 20:24 BST
Prof Jonathan Van-Tam says this is a 'very dangerous movement'

The country is facing a “very dangerous moment”, the deputy chief medical officer has said as a growing number of scientific advisers spoke out over fears lockdown was being lifted too quickly.

Professor Jonathan Van-Tam, using extraordinary language, urged the public not to “tear the pants out of” the new freedoms as people flocked to beaches and beauty spots over the weekend to enjoy the sunshine.

Top scientists advising the government expressed growing alarm at the lifting of restrictions when 8,000 new cases were occurring per day and the new test and trace system was still in its early stages.

Professor Robert West, a member of the behavioural scientists’ subgroup that advises the government, said there was a “huge risk” of a spike in coronavirus infection rates and accused ministers of “not taking responsibilities for political leadership seriously”.

Another member of the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage), Professor Peter Horby, warned: ”Returning to a situation where we have lost control again is far worse than another week or two of social measures.”

But ministers are determined to press ahead with loosening of restrictions, with plans to bring back competitive sport from Monday and new freedoms to socialise and exercise outside in groups of up to six people.

The warnings from the scientific community come as:

  • The deputy chief medical officer took a swipe at Dominic Cummings, saying the rules “apply to all”
  • Coronavirus deaths rose to 38,376 people, an increase of 215 deaths on the previous day.
  • The president of the Association of Directors of Social Services said the government’s £600m infection control fund for care homes was “confused and unnecessarily bureaucratic”
  • Senior Tories called on the government to review the two-metre social distancing rules to prevent the collapse of the hospitality sector
  • A former cabinet minister said voters will become disenfranchised unless arrangements for a virtual parliament remain in place

Amid widespread reports that members of the public were defying the restrictions, several members of Sage took the unusual step of publicly warning ministers they were moving too fast on lifting the lockdown.

Prof West said the number of daily cases was still relatively high, adding: “Put all this together and you have a huge risk, and it’s not just me saying that, that there will be an increase in infection rates.

“Because we don’t have track and trace in place, we won’t know whether this easing of the lockdown has caused an increase in infections for some time, by which time it will be well under way, the second peak will be well under way.

“The government is not taking its responsibilities for political leadership seriously.”

Prof Horby, of Oxford University, told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme there were still 8,000 cases per day and there was “very little headroom” if the infection rates rose again.

Asked if there was a risk of a second spike, he said: “That’s the risk we are all very concerned about. It is a fragile time, we have to be very careful.”

He added: “Returning to a situation where we have lost control again is far worse than another week or two of social measures.”

Their interventions came after Professor John Edmunds, another member of Sage, warned that Boris Johnson’s decision to allow the public greater freedom was “risky”.

He also raised concerns about the new test and trace system launched on Thursday to track people infected by coronavirus, saying: “We can’t be sure that is working effectively yet, and yet we’re going ahead and making these changes anyway.”

These concerns were echoed by Sir Jeremy Farrar, the respected director of the Wellcome Trust, who also attends Sage meetings.

He said: “Covid-19 is spreading too fast to lift lockdown in England. Agree with John and clear science advice.

“TTI [test and trace] has to be in place, fully working, capable [of] dealing [with] any surge immediately, locally responsive, rapid results and infection rates have to be lower. And trusted.”

Prof Van-Tam said at the daily Downing Street press conference that the government and the public had a “dual responsibility” to prevent a second wave of the virus, adding: “I believe this is also a very dangerous moment. We have to get this right.”

He said scientific opinions “always vary to some extent”, and told the press conference that the lockdown easing must go “painstakingly” slowly.

He added: “There is a dual responsibility here of government to go slowly and carefully and to take the advice from the scientists.

“Of the scientists, to watch this whole thing very closely over the next few weeks.

“And, of the public in general to actually follow the guidance. Don’t tear the pants out of it, and don’t go further than the guidance actually says.”

Prof Van-Tam was also pressed on whether those in authority should set an example to the public on obeying the restrictions, amid an ongoing row over whether Dominic Cummings breached the rules by travelling 260 miles to his parents’ farm in County Durham.

The senior medic made his feelings clear, saying: “In my opinion the rules are clear and they have always been clear.

“In my opinion they are for the benefit of all. In my opinion they apply to all.”

On the concerns, a No 10 spokesperson said: “As the PM said on Thursday when this next step was unveiled, we have at all times been informed by the data and evidence, and this package of measures has been carefully designed so that we can ease the burdens of lockdown while expecting to keep that R below one.”

Join our commenting forum

Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies


Thank you for registering

Please refresh the page or navigate to another page on the site to be automatically logged inPlease refresh your browser to be logged in