More than 40,000 people could die this summer as the Delta variant of coronavirus sweeps through the UK, even after Boris Johnson’s decision to delay the lifting of lockdown restrictions by four weeks to 19 July, scientists have warned.
A paper submitted to the government’s Scientific Advisory Group on Emergencies (Sage) said that a summer wave of infections, hospitalisations and deaths is “likely” whether or not restrictions are lifted because of the highly virulent nature of the variant, but the potential peak death rate could be reduced from 700 to 500 a day by delaying Step 4 of Mr Johnson’s roadmap from the planned date of 21 June.
The prime minister today said he was “confident” that the so-called Freedom Day - when most remaining social distancing rules will be lifted and crowds return to sports fixtures and arts events - will not have to be deferred again beyond 19 July and that it will not be necessary to reimpose any of the curbs on shops and hospitality which have been removed over the past few months.
But the worst-case scenario figures drawn up by the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine are certain to revive controversy over Mr Johnson’s delay in imposing travel restrictions from India, where the Delta variant was first identified, at a time when he was planning a crucial trade visit to the country in March.
European countries which barred travellers from the south Asian country earlier than the UK have suffered less from the Delta variant, which is believed to be 40-80 per cent more transmissible than the original Covid-19 strain and now makes up around nine in 10 British cases.
With Downing Street seeing the coming weeks as a race against the virus and the vaccine, the target for offering a first jab to all adults in England is being brought forward from the end of July to 19 July.
And the delay between first and second jabs is being cut from 12 to eight weeks for over-40s, as scientists said promoting high vaccine uptake is critical to suppressing the worst effects of the third wave.
The authorities believe that by stepping up inoculations, around two-thirds of adults will have been offered a second dose by 19 July, significantly reducing the risk of hospitalisation and cutting deaths by thousands.
But the LSHTM study, presented to Sage on 8 June, said that a five-week delay to the start of the summer holidays would only reduce the projected worst-case scenario number of deaths to a central estimate of 43,500 - within a range stretching from 31,200-62,900. Going ahead with relaxations on 21 June under this scenario would see a central estimate of 49,700 deaths over the summer wave - within a range of 35,600-67,200.
Mr Johnson said: “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.”
A two-week review will be carried out on 28 June, but Downing Street made clear it was thought unlikely that the situation will have improved enough by then to allow reopening to be brought forward to 5 July. The result of a second review, announced on 12 July, is expected to lead to the lifting of remaining restrictions a week later.
The PM held out some consolation to couples planning to get married or enter civil partnerships over the coming weeks, announcing that the cap of 30 attending ceremonies and receptions is to be lifted.
Care home residents will no longer have to self-isolate for 14 days after trips outside the premises. And trials of mass attendance events with audiences of various sizes will continue, meaning there is no change to numbers of fans expected to be allowed to attend Euro 2020 football matches.
But he said there would be no additional financial support for businesses hit by extended closure, despite warnings that the delay will cost the nightlife and hospitality sector alone as much as £3bn. The moratorium on commercial evictions will end as scheduled on 1 July, despite many businesses now not being able to reopen until after that date.
The UK is now recording around 8,000 positive Covid cases a day, the highest level since February. Numbers are growing by 70 per cent nationally week-on-week and are doubling weekly in areas with higher levels of infection, focused in the northwest of England but now covering one-third of the country.
Average numbers of people admitted to hospital are increasing by 15 per cent each week - but by 66 per cent in the northwest. But deaths remain low, with just three recorded nationwide on Monday.
Minutes of a Sage meeting on 9 June showed that the SPI-M expert modelling group estimates that there are between 7,000 and 13,000 new infections per day in England. The proportion of cases that result in hospitalisation has decreased significantly due to vaccination and that older people - who are more likely to have had both jabs - are making up a decreasing share of those needing hospital treatment.
But crucially, the number of infections and hospitalisations are still linked and there is “considerable uncertainty” about the scale of the expected resurgence in infections and hospital admissions.
SPI-M modelling found that going ahead with relaxation of curbs could result in hospitalisations hitting the peak seen in the first wave of the pandemic in March 2020, when 2,500-3,000 patients were being admitted by the NHS every day.
In any scenario, Sage found that delaying Step 4 of Mr Johnson’s roadmap would avoid admissions and deaths, by giving extra time for people to get vaccinated. Most of the benefit comes in the first four weeks of delay - in part because it pushes Freedom Day closer to the school holidays, when infections are expected to be reduced - and peak admissions could be cut by a third to a half during this time.
“Reducing uncertainty about whether there may be unsustainable pressure on the NHS also reduces the risk of needing to consider reimposing measures,” said the Sage minutes. “Although there is a risk of unsustainable pressures even with a delay, it is much lower.”
The LSHTM study submitted to Sage on 8 June said that a summer wave of infections comparable to those seen in spring and autumn 2020 could be expected, with a peak in August or September.
More than half of the hospitalisations and deaths are expected to occur in unvaccinated individuals, with deaths concentrated in the over-75 age group, said the paper.
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