Boris Johnson was warned in April that a potential fourth coronavirus lockdown could last “much longer” if his “freedom day” unlocking backfires. A paper by top scientific advisers on 22 April warned of the need to “maintain low prevalence” of the virus in the long-term.
It said a lengthy period of restrictions may be needed again if it becomes urgently necessary to reduce infection numbers, for example with the emergence of a vaccine-resistant variant. The paper was published by the government on Monday evening, at the same time as the prime minister announced most mitigations will be scrapped when England’s lockdown ends. That date is currently set for 19 July.
At his Downing Street press conference on Monday, Johnson acknowledged there may be 50,000 new cases a day by that point. On Tuesday, health secretary Sajid Javid went further and suggested infections could rise to more than 100,000 a day.
However, this is exactly the scenario the paper, which was presented to the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage), warned against.
It says: “There is significant risk in allowing prevalence to rise, even if hospitalisations and deaths are kept low by vaccination. “If it were necessary to reduce prevalence to low levels again (e.g. variants of concern become more pathogenic for others previously less affected), then restrictive measures would be required for much longer.”