Britain must not “yo-yo” in and out of lockdown, Dominic Raab said yesterday in preparation for the prime minister’s announcement of a delay to the end of Covid-19 restrictions.
The foreign secretary suggested that the “vast majority of people” accepted a delay if it meant that the nation could move out of lockdown “irreversibly”.
Speaking yesterday before a four-week extension of restrictions was agreed by senior ministers last night, Raab told The Andrew Marr show on BBC1: “I think the vast majority of people in the country, but also parliament, will understand that. We don’t want to yo-yo back in and out of measures . . . It’s that critical link between transmission and hospitalisations which is probably the most sensitive right now.
“We know we’ve made great progress in weakening the link between transmission and hospitalisation. The question is whether we’ve severed and broken it . . . the PM will set out the positions tomorrow.”
Boris Johnson is expected to formally announce a delay this evening.
Raab added: “The prime minister has said we want to be irreversible in transitioning through the four steps. The vaccine rollout has gone exceptionally well. Of course we’ve had the googly thrown up of the new variants. On the trajectory we’re on, things are still very much on track but there may be a question of whether we’ve severed the link in time [for June 21].”
Professor Andrew Hayward, an expert in epidemiology and government scientist who is a member of the advisory group Nervtag, said he expected that there would be a substantial third wave. He said that a full unlocking could lead to rising infection levels.
“I think it’s clear we will have a substantial third wave of infections. The really big question is how much that wave of infections is going to translate into hospitalisations,” he told Andrew Marr. “But we still don’t know how bad it could be.”
Referring to the Indian variant, he said: “I think 60 per cent more infectious is extremely worrying, that is the thing that will drive the speed with which the next wave comes along. I think if we were to open up more that would really fan the flames and lead to this increasing even faster.
“If we’re driving down a road and coming up to a bend and you’re not quite sure what’s around that bend, but you think there might be something bad, you don’t put your foot on the accelerator; if anything you slow down.
“It’s analogous to that. We’ve got to be really cautious because there is still a substantial chance that we could have a wave of hospitalisations that could put substantial pressure on the NHS.”
His comments were backed by Dr Raghib Ali, senior clinical research associate at Cambridge University’s MRC epidemiology unit, who said that any increase in Covid-19 patients would have a “significant” impact.
“Hospitals are extremely busy at the moment,” he told Sky News. “The emergency departments last month were the busiest they have been for years because of the huge backlog of patients that didn’t come in during the previous waves.
“Even a relatively small increase in hospital admissions from Covid will have a significant impact on all our non-Covid patients. We really can’t afford for those people to suffer any more; they have already suffered enough over the last 18 months.”
Polling by Opinium suggested broad public support for the government’s approach, with 54 per cent in favour of a delay and 37 per cent against.
Professor Stephen Reicher, a member of the Spi-B group of behavioural scientists advising ministers, said that the findings gave the lie to claims that there was a limit to the restrictions the public would accept. He told Times Radio: “We have a public that understands what needs to be done, is following the science and yet is held back by a government that isn’t prepared to take action.”
There was frustration among some Tory MPs at the prospect of further delay. Writing in The Mail on Sunday, Sir Graham Brady, the chairman of the 1922 Committee, said: “There is no excuse for this further catastrophic delay. It is unacceptable to restrict people’s most fundamental rights.”
Rishi Sunak has rejected pleas to extend the furlough scheme, according to sources close to the chancellor. The Daily Mail reported that the timetable for gradually withdrawing the support fund, which is due to start being wound down at the end of the month, would remain the same.