Ministers are under increasing pressure over their plans to lift lockdown after one of the architects of the measures suggested the restrictions could be eased earlier than planned.
Professor Neil Ferguson, an epidemiologist from Imperial College, told Times Radio there was a “chance” the government’s schedule could be accelerated, although he conceded it was “faint”.
But the health secretary Matt Hancock insisted England would return to normality “no earlier” than 21 June.
The timeline was set out in an official ‘roadmap’ unveiled yesterday.
But the plans have prompted anger from some Tory MPs and businesses who believe the successful Covid-19 vaccination programme should enable the government to move more swiftly.
That view appeared to be echoed, albeit cautiously, by Professor Ferguson.
He said: “I think things become more uncertain the further forward in time you look. We’re getting better data on vaccine effectiveness, but it’s still not perfect. And in particular we don’t know, for those people who get vaccinated but still get infected, is their infectiousness reduced, for instance.
“If it is then the vaccines may actually have a bigger impact than we are currently estimating.
“We also don’t know exactly how much transmission will increase with each step. So this is the key. Hopefully, what we’ll see when each step happens is a very limited resurgence of infections and hopefully very limited resurgence of hospitalizations and deaths, in which case, there’s a faint chance that we can accelerate the schedule.”
He said plans to reopen schools on 8 March would push up the ‘R’ number, but added that the continued rollout of the vaccine programme would act as a counterweight.
“There is always a balancing act between the need for children to be in schools to get an education and the need to control coronavirus. And at the end of the day, that is a judgement call by the government, I’m not going to sit here and criticise on the basis that it isn’t optimal for controlling disease, I think it will- and our modelling suggests – it will be an acceptable level of risk, but there will be risk associated with it.”
Asked during a visit to a school in south London whether his roadmap was too cautious, Boris Johnson said he thought the balance was “right”.
“I think it’s a cautious but irreversible approach which is I think what people want to see,” he said.
He warned that with each measure to open up society the government was “adding all the time to the budget of risk, and you need time to observe the impact of that”.