England’s deputy chief medical officer has warned that the country is at a dangerous moment and urged the public to follow the government’s advice to the letter as ministers seek to slowly ease the lockdown without allowing a dangerous resurgence in Covid-19.
Jonathan Van Tam told a press conference on Saturday afternoon that unless people behaved in a sensible way, there was a high risk of the pandemic worsening in the UK.
“There are potential dangers if we go too fast,” he said.
His comments came after four members of the government’s scientific advisory group Sage expressed concern over Boris Johnson’s move to further relax England’s lockdown from Monday, saying it might be premature and risked a resurgence of infections.
They include Calum Semple, professor of child health and outbreak medicine at the University of Liverpool, who told BBC Radio 5 the lockdown was being lifted too soon. “Essentially we’re lifting the lid on a boiling pan and it’s just going to bubble over,” he said. “We need to get it down to simmer before we take the lid off, and it’s too early.”
Prof Van Tam admitted that the daily number of confirmed tested Covid-19 cases has ticked up in recent days — although he said the seven-day moving average was still going down.
“People have got to be sensible and proportionate with the freedom we absolutely give to them,” he said. “If people go further and think it won’t matter . . . then this won’t work either.”
He pleaded with the general public to follow the guidance, saying: “Don’t tear the pants out of it and don’t go further than what the guidance actually says.”
At the same time Prof Van Tam was invited to comment on the scandal involving Dominic Cummings, the most senior adviser to prime minister Boris Johnson, who drove 260 miles north during the pandemic and then took a one-hour road trip supposedly to check his own eyesight.
On Thursday the chief medical officer and the chief scientific adviser refused to answer any questions about Mr Cummings, saying they wanted to avoid being dragged into the political row.
But Prof Van Tam did not hesitate, saying: “In my opinion the rules are clear and they have always been clear. In my opinion, they are for the benefit of all and in my opinion they apply to all.”
Oliver Dowden, culture secretary, announced that professional sport would return to English screens from next week after the government gave the green light to sporting fixtures — albeit without spectators — including football, horseracing, tennis, Formula One, rugby and cricket.
The first major sporting event to get the go-ahead will be the 2000 Guineas Stakes at Newmarket Racecourse on June 6.
Mr Dowden also announced that the Premier League has reached an agreement with broadcasters to show a third of its games on free-to-air platforms including the BBC.
Mr Dowden said amateur sports players would be able to resume training or fitness sessions in groups of up to six from different households. But players will have to stay 2m apart with a ban on physical contact.
Parents will be able to accompany their children to coaching carried out in small groups or one-to-one.
The changes come as lockdown is to be eased from June 1, when schools will start to reopen and outdoor gatherings of up to six people will be allowed, provided that those from different households remain two metres apart.
The four scientists who criticised the government over the weekend include John Edmunds of the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, a member of Sage.
He said the move to ease the lockdown in England came with the number of new infections — or incidence — running at about 8,000 per day, which was “still quite high”.
He said this measure had to be taken into consideration along with the R number, the much-quoted figure that shows how fast infections are increasing or decreasing. Prof Edmunds also expressed concern that the track and trace system in England was not yet proven. “Many of us would prefer to see incidence driven to lower levels before we relax the measures,” he said
Asked whether the government was ignoring the advice of some scientists in reopening parts of society, Mr Dowden said Sage consisted of more than 50 experts who all had different views.
“I think scientists who spoke this morning were absolutely right to be cautious. We are at a risk point, we’ve got the R number below 1 but we haven’t got that much headroom. That’s why the prime minister has made clear we have to proceed in a very cautious way.”
Mr Dowden said the government was broadly in agreement with the four scientists, arguing that the measures announced so far were only tentative steps, which still emphasised the need for social distancing.