A Government adviser has suggested coronavirus cases need to fall below 10,000 a day before Boris Johnson should consider easing lockdown measures.
It is “not sensible” for the Government to draw up a road map out of lockdown before local transmission is under control, Sir Jeremy Farrar, director of the Wellcome Trust and a member of the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage), said.
The Government’s daily figures on Wednesday showed there had been a further 13,013 lab-confirmed cases of coronavirus in the UK.
In the week to February 6, an average of 17,460 cases a day were recorded.
The most recent Office for National Statistics estimates suggest around one in 65 people in private households in England had Covid-19 between January 24 and 30, the equivalent of 846,900 people.
Downing Street said ministers “will look at the data in the round” when it comes to decisions on easing restrictions.
The Prime Minister is expected to set out his “road map” for easing the lockdown on February 22.
But Sir Jeremy said it “doesn’t make any sense” to set out plans to ease restrictions with arbitrary dates in March or April.
“Transmission is still incredibly high in the UK. If transmission were still at this level and we were not in lockdown, we would be going into lockdown,” he said.
“There are 750,000 people today in the UK infected, there’s still huge pressure on the NHS and on critical care in this country.
“We’ve made enormous progress – the UK deserves great credit for the science behind the vaccines and the rollout, (with) 13 million people vaccinated in this country.
“But the transmission rate is incredibly high still and we’ve got to get it lower, we’ve got to get it – in my view – into the single thousands before we can possibly think about lifting restrictions.”
He told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme: “I appreciate that businesses have to plan and everything else, but the data has to drive us, and in 2020 we lifted restrictions too quickly when the date would not really have allowed that and, frankly, as a result the transmission went back up in this country.”
Sir Jeremy said the new coronavirus variants are a “massive warning” about the risks of lifting restrictions before the vaccine programme has been fully rolled out.
He warned that the new, stricter border controls will also have little impact while community transmission is so high.
Sir Jeremy added: “Border controls can work if transmission is very low, if they are very comprehensive and you’re willing to put them in place for a very long time.
“They buy you time, but they don’t reduce transmission when your transmission is already very high.”
The Prime Minister’s official spokesman said: “We want to see infection rates continue to fall across the UK, not least so that will ease the pressure on the NHS and ultimately lead to fewer people sadly dying.
“We will look at the data in the round and we will use that to inform the road map.”