Dominic Raab has said that England “can’t just stay in lockdown forever”, as he justified the government’s decision to further ease restrictions on Monday.
The government is moving from Level Four to Level Three of its Covid alert system, despite warnings from some members of its own scientific advisory committee.
“The reason we are taking the steps that we are taking tomorrow . . . is precisely not just because the R level is down below one but also because we’re making the progress on the data,” the foreign secretary said. “We’re making progress. Obviously, this is a sensitive moment.”
Mr Raab said the government would reimpose lockdown measures on towns or cities if there was “any uptick in one particular locality, or one particular setting”.
“We’ve got the ability to take targeted measures,” Mr Raab said.
From Monday small groups will be able to meet outdoors, professional sport will resume behind closed doors and 2m clinically vulnerable people — who have been self-isolating since March — will be able to meet others outside.
Yet several scientists who advise the government have warned that the moves could jeopardise attempts to get Covid-19 under control.
Devi Sridhar, professor of global public health at the University of Edinburgh, warned that a rise in cases appeared “inevitable”.
Asked by Sky News if she expected an increase in infections, she replied: “I’m very sorry to say that I think it is, right now, inevitable, looking at the numbers”.
Prof Sridhar suggested the only thing that might “save” England from a major recurrence of the illness was the hot, dry weather in which the virus does not thrive.
“It’s a big risk and gamble for exiting lockdown with a larger number of deaths than we did when we actually entered lockdown months back.”
Peter Openshaw, who sits on the Nervtag advisory group, said it was important for the government to proceed with “great caution”.
“We do need to proceed with great, great care at this point,” he said. “I think there is a pretty unanimous message now that we need to take this slowly and go step by step,” he told The Andrew Marr Show on the BBC.
The comments came after four members of the Sage advisory group expressed concern about what they described as the premature easing of the lockdown.
Calum Semple, professor of child health and outbreak medicine at the University of Liverpool, told BBC Radio 5 on Saturday that 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.”
Mr Raab played down the idea that the government was ignoring scientific advice, saying there was disagreement among the scientists.
“Scientists do not always agree. In fact, that’s not what we want. We don’t want them all to agree,” he said. “We want them to test the evidence.”
Separately, Prof Openshaw said research suggested that some people in the “extremely vulnerable” category were not particularly at risk from Covid-19 after all: including those who have fully recovered from cancer and some asthmatics who do not use oral steroids.