A battle over the lifting of coronavirus restrictions is raging at the heart of the government.
Many of ministers’ most trusted scientists are warning that lifting remaining safety measures on 21 June could lead to a new wave of infections. They are urging “caution”, warning that there could be huge pressure upon the NHS.
The Independent Sage group of scientists took a harder line, urging the government to rule out immediately plans to lift the last restrictions.
Professor Christina Pagel is a mathematician at University College London. She told the group’s weekly briefing, “We now have an exponentially increasing dominant variant that is more transmissible, more vaccine resistant.”
And she said it is “likely more severe” than the Kent variant that saw a surge in infections over Christmas.
But hardline bosses and right wing MPs are demanding that Boris Johnson's “freedom day” comes on schedule—no matter the price in people’s lives.
So far, ministers have put off making any firm commitment.
With Dominic Cummings’ revelations about Tory incompetence and lies still ringing in their ears, many cabinet members worry about another calamity.
Evidence already seen easily makes the case for maintaining safety measures.
The Delta variant, which was first analysed in India, is now the dominant strain of coronavirus in Britain. It is at least 40 percent more transmissible than the Kent variant that accounted for most infections here this year.
More than 6,000 new infections were recorded on Friday of last week. The virus is primarily hitting younger people who are less likely to have been vaccinated, but have a much wider range of social contacts than older adults.
And the spread of infections in schools has been particularly alarming. Data covering the period between 26 April and 30 May showed more than 140 infection incidents.
The number of confirmed Delta variant infections in schools has risen from three at the start of May to 39 by the end. That’s more than a ten-fold increase in just four weeks.
Professor Pagel said, “It is clear that schools are a major source of transmission. Outbreaks in primary and secondary schools have been growing a lot, week on week.
“Meanwhile, the government removed the mask mandate on 17 May. And the Public Health England surveillance report this week shows that the number of tests being done in secondary schools is decreasing all the time.”
“The government needs to get serious about reducing cases in schools.”
Authorities were desperately trying to keep data on school infections secret, with Public Health England refusing to release its reports despite numerous requests.
No one can yet accurately calculate the increased risk posed by the Delta variant because it has not been studied for long enough.
NHS bosses used press conferences last weekend to reassure the public that cases were less life-threatening than in previous waves.
It may be true that vaccinations are protecting the most vulnerable sections of the population from coronavirus.
But there are now more than a million people in Britain suffering from what is described as “long Covid”. It’s a post-viral condition that can remain debilitating even months after the initial infection. So the numbers of people in intensive care beds are far from the only indicator of how seriously we should take any new wave of infections.
Bosses will squeal about cancelled holiday bookings and underperforming restaurants, and braying Tories will surely follow their lead with demands for “liberation”.
But protecting people from illness and death ought to be the number one priority. It is to Keir Starmer’s great shame that Labour are too fearful to make exactly that point. The party is determined to show bosses that it is no threat to their interests.