Scientists advising the government have warned of another 138,000 Covid-19 deaths in the next 18 months in the UK even with the current rapid vaccine rollout.
Modelling from Imperial College London suggests that if vaccinations continue at around three million doses a week, this would “still lead to an additional 130,800 (103,200 - 167,600) deaths between now and June 2022”. The new more infectious UK variant is acknowledged as a factor driving the death toll.
The document also said that unless vaccination is at three million-a-week, gradual lifting of non-pharmaceutical interventions – such as social distancing, mask-wearing and handwashing – from March 1 to July 1 will lead to “a third wave” of hospital admissions.
Recent figures show that the week to February 3 was the first time more than three million first doses had been given in a seven-day period.
The Imperial team added the current vaccination rate is the bare minimum needed to avoid hospitals being overwhelmed, and a “more cautious approach to gradually lifting” lockdown measures may need to be considered.
The document appears in minutes from a Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage) meeting on January 14 released on Friday.
A review of the evidence available on the impact of the current lockdown and vaccinations will take place the week beginning February 15.
It comes as the government’s optimistic forecast for the vaccine programme has led to pressure from Tory MPs to re-open the economy.
More than half of all UK adults should receive a coronavirus vaccine by May, the government has announced. It is planned that all those aged 50 and over, as well as adults aged 16-65 in an at-risk group, will get a jab by May – having previously said it aimed to do so “by the spring”.
More than 10.9 million first doses have already been given.
According to the government’s vaccines delivery plan, 32 million people across the UK are estimated to fall into the first nine groups. There are 52.7 million people aged 18 and over in the UK.
Scientists advising the government have warned against opening society up too quickly.
Professor Graham Medley, chairman of the Scientific Pandemic Influenza Group on Modelling (Spi-M), said ministers should “make decisions dependent on the circumstances, rather than being driven by a calendar of wanting to do things”.
But Mark Harper, chairman of the Covid Recovery Group, made up of lockdown-sceptic Conservative MPs, said it will be “almost impossible to justify having any restrictions in place at all” by the time the top nine groups have been vaccinated.
Any decision to relax the measures will be boosted by new research from Oxford University suggesting its vaccine with AstraZeneca is effective at fighting the new UK coronavirus strain.
Researchers said it has a similar efficacy against the variant, compared with the original strain of Covid-19 against which it was tested, following concern over whether or not the vaccines would continue to be effective.
However, to combat the threat posed by any future variants, the Government announced a deal with biopharmaceutical company CureVac to allow the UK to “swiftly tweak and roll out” existing vaccines.