Foreign holidays could trigger another lockdown because they risk bringing back vaccine-dodging coronavirus variants, experts warn.
Boris Johnson has promised his ‘roadmap’ will end the crippling restrictions ‘once and for all’, as Britain marks a year since life as we knew it ground to a halt. But SAGE scientists say trips abroad this summer could ‘jeopardise’ the UK’s hard-won low infection rates amid a spiralling third wave in Europe.
Professor Kamlesh Khunti, a SAGE member, urged Britons not to book holidays abroad ‘until next year’, adding they risked importing dangerous variants.
‘We had people coming in from Spain and Italy (last summer) and that increased the rates in the UK,’ he told the Guardian. ‘We cannot allow that now. Does this risk another lockdown? Absolutely.’
And Professor Calum Semple, who also sits on SAGE, cautioned France, Germany, Belgium and other countries seeing a spike in cases amid low jabbing rates were the ‘perfect breeding ground’ for dangerous variants.
‘So, at this point, Britain has got its act together, the concern is as this third wave is going on elsewhere, that will generate new variations,’ he told Sky News.
‘Even within Britain there is a likelihood of a third wave in potentially July and August time when we do unlock society.’
The Prime Minister has warned Europe’s surging cases will ‘wash up on our shores’, as he prepares to offer millions of first doses to the continent which has struggled with its bungling jabs roll-out.
Mr Johnson has put high vaccine uptake at the heart of his lockdown exit strategy, but warned the spread of new troublesome variants could derail his plans to lift tight curbs on Britons daily lives. The earliest date all restrictions could go is June 21.
It comes amid mooted £5,000 fines for anyone leaving the UK without a ‘reasonable excuse’ and that restrictions could last all year for some holiday hot-spots.
Professor Kamlesh Khunti, from SAGE, urged Britons not to book holidays abroad ‘until next year’, saying they risked importing dangerous variants. Professor Calum Semple, also on SAGE, said the continent’s rising cases amid low vaccination rates was the ‘perfect breeding ground’ for new troublesome variants
Germany is one of several European countries facing tough new lockdown measures as cases spike amid a stalled vaccine roll-out that has left people unprotected
Britain has sparked surge-testing in some postcodes to stamp out cases of the South African and Brazilian variants of the virus, which studies suggest could make jab-induced immunity less effective.
Public Health England figures show 351 cases of the South African, and 55 of the Brazilian have been identified in the UK so far – which scientists say suggests they are yet to gain a foothold here.
But cases of both strains are rising rapidly on the continent, making up 10 to 15 per cent of cases in France alone, raising the prospect they could be re-imported.
Rising infections in the face of low vaccine rates could also spark new variants, because it gives the virus valuable time to learn tricks to dodge jab-triggered immunity as it can still infect a large portion of the population.
Professor Khunti, from the University of Leicester, today warned ministers allowing summer holidays could ‘jeopardise’ Britain’s low case numbers.
‘It’s been a hard lockdown, we are doing so well, we cannot jeopardise this now,’ he said. ‘Our rates are coming down, our vaccination rate is fantastic, and the biggest fear we have is new variants that the vaccines don’t work as well against.’
Professor Semple, who is also an epidemiologist at the University of Liverpool, warned any third wave in the UK could occur in people that are ‘less susceptible to very severe disease’.
‘It’s inevitable as we unlock there will be an rise in cases, the key here is have we won the race to vaccinate the most vulnerable members of society so we can keep society open this time.’
But Professor Neil Ferguson – whose scary predictions of thousands of deaths spooked ministers into the first lockdown – sounded a more upbeat note.
He wrote in The Telegraph: ‘The team at Imperial and I have spent the last few months modelling vaccination and new variants.
‘The next few months require continued vigilance but I am hopeful this third lockdown will really be the last.’
Experts are warning that Britain will also face a third wave of the disease, with cases expected to rise as more restrictions are relaxed.
The Prime Minister has warned that should cases rise in a way that could risk more hospitalisations and deaths from the virus – such as if they are powered by new variants – he will not fail to slam the brakes onto his ‘roadmap’.
Mr Johnson has also not ruled out tighter curbs being imposed on local areas to contain outbreaks.
It comes as Health Secretary Matt Hancock today said the UK must be ‘permanently ready’ for all future pandemics.