Health leaders are calling for an urgent review to ensure Britain is properly prepared for the “real risk” of a second wave of coronavirus.
Ministers have been warned that urgent action is needed to prevent further loss of life and to protect the economy amid growing fears of a renewed outbreak over the winter.
The appeal is backed by the presidents of the Royal Colleges of Physicians, Surgeons, GPs and Nursing – as well as the chair of the British Medical Association.
It comes after Boris Johnson announced on Tuesday the biggest easing to date of the coronavirus lockdown in England.
The PM said the two-metre social-distancing rule would be replaced with a “one-metre plus” rule paving the way for pubs, restaurants, hotels and cinemas to begin reopening from July 4.
In an open letter to the leaders of all the UK political parties published in the British Medical Journal, the health chiefs call for a “rapid and forward-looking assessment” of the state of national preparedness in the event of a renewed flare-up.
“While the future shape of the pandemic in the UK is hard to predict, the available evidence indicates that local flare ups are increasingly likely and a second wave a real risk,” they said.
“Many elements of the infrastructure needed to contain the virus are beginning to be put in place, but substantial challenges remain.
“The job now is not only to deal urgently with the wide-ranging impacts of the first phase of the pandemic, but to ensure that the country is adequately prepared to contain a second phase.”
They called for the creation of a cross-party commission with a “constructive, non-partisan, four nations approach,” to be established to develop practical recommendations for action based on what had been learned so far.
“We believe this will be essential if the UK is to get ahead of the curve,” they said.
“It should focus on those areas of weakness where action is needed urgently to prevent further loss of life and restore the economy as fully and as quickly as possible.
“We think there’s a strong case for an immediate assessment of national preparedness, with the first results available no later than August, and that all its work should be completed by the end of October.”
Ministers have already said that the temporary Nightingale hospitals set up in case the NHS was overwhelmed by Covid-19 cases will remain on standby over the coming months.
The letter comes as Imperial College economist Professor David Miles told BBC Radio 5 the easing of lockdown measures was overdue.
He said: “We probably have gone past the point some weeks ago where the benefits of keeping in place the lockdown were large enough to match the rising and enormous costs of lockdown.”
At the final daily No.10 briefing on Tuesday, both the government’s chief scientific adviser Sir Patrick Vallance and the chief medical officer for England Professor Chris Whitty stressed it was not a “risk-free” move.
Whitty said it was “absolutely critical” that people continued to observe social distancing, taking steps to mitigate the spread of the disease when it was not possible to stay two metres apart.
He warned the virus was likely to be present in the UK until at least the spring of 2021 and that if people returned to their normal patterns of behaviour “we will get an uptick for sure”.
Vallance also warned that despite the falling numbers of people infected with the disease, the threat remained.
“Don’t be fooled that this means it has gone away. The disease is growing across the world. It is coming down in the UK but it hasn’t gone away,” he said.
A Department of Health and Social Care spokesperson said: “We have been clear that we will continue to be guided by the latest scientific advice and will give the NHS whatever it needs, as we have done throughout this unprecedented pandemic.
“Thanks to the dedication of NHS staff, hospitals have not been overwhelmed and intensive care capacity continues to meet the needs of patients.
“Effective local management of any outbreak is the first line of protection against a second wave. In the event the local response is not sufficient to contain outbreaks, the government would reintroduce measures if necessary to contain the virus and stop it spreading to the wider population.”
The easing of the two-metre rule was warmly welcomed by the hospitality sector which had warned that many pubs, cafes and restaurants would be forced to close if it remained in place.
Hairdressers, barbers, cinemas, museums and art galleries in England are now also preparing to open their doors to visitors again from July 4.
However “close proximity” businesses including nightclubs, soft play centres, indoor gyms, nail bars and beauty salons will remain shut, as will bowling alleys and water parks.