Health leaders are calling for an urgent review to determine whether the UK is properly prepared for the “real risk” of a second wave of coronavirus.
In an open letter published in the British Medical Journal, ministers were warned that urgent action would be needed to prevent further loss of life.
The presidents of the Royal Colleges of Surgeons, Nursing, Physicians, and GPs all signed the letter.
It comes after Boris Johnson announced sweeping changes to England’s lockdown.
The Department of Health said it would continue to be guided by the latest scientific advice and would give the NHS “whatever it needs”.
On Tuesday, the prime minister said pubs, restaurants, cinemas and hairdressers will be able to reopen from 4 July.
The 2m social-distancing rule will be replaced with a “one-metre plus” rule, meaning people should stay at least 2m apart where possible, but otherwise should remain at least 1m apart while taking steps to reduce the risk of transmission, such as wearing face coverings.
The 2m rule will remain in Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland, however.
Both the government’s chief scientific adviser Sir Patrick Vallance and the chief medical officer for England Professor Chris Whitty stressed Mr Johnson’s plan was not “risk-free” at Tuesday’s final daily Downing Street coronavirus briefing.
Following the prime minister’s announcement, health leaders called for a “rapid and forward-looking assessment” of how prepared the UK would be for a new outbreak of the virus.
“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 wrote in the letter.
“Many elements of the infrastructure needed to contain the virus are beginning to be put in place, but substantial challenges remain.”
The authors of the letter, also signed by the chair of the British Medical Association, urged ministers to set up a cross-party group with a “constructive, non-partisan, four nations approach”, tasked with developing practical recommendations.
“The review should not be about looking back or attributing blame,” they said, and instead should focus on “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”.
Former Conservative health secretary Jeremy Hunt told BBC Radio 5 Live’s Emma Barnett that he did not think it was the right time for a public inquiry, which would take up a lot of ministerial time but he thought there was a “very real risk” of a second wave.
“You just have to look to Germany, which has had one of the best responses to the pandemic and they have got this big issue at a meat processing plant with thousands of people infected; look at South Korea which had to trace the contacts of 1,700 people after a nightclub incident – that’s another country which has had a very good response to coronavirus,” he said.
“In the places which are the best in the world they are dealing with these spikes and we have to recognise there is a very real risk of that here too.”
Talk of a dreaded second wave will dominate the coming weeks and months.
The UK will need to be prepared for one. But as the health leaders acknowledge, it’s not possible to predict for sure if one will actually happen.
What is certainly a given, is there will be local flare-ups where we see clusters of infections in places. This has already happened in Leicester, Anglesey and Cleckheaton.
But what is important to recognise is that the UK is in a completely different position to where it was in March when the first wave hit.
Testing capacity has gone from a few thousand a day to 200,000 to identify those infected. There is a network of contact tracers to find those that might be infected.
There are still weaknesses – some tests take too long to turnaround, while the tracing system is still bedding in and the app is not ready.
But there is a realistic chance if these continue to improve and, importantly, the public keeps playing its part by both continuing to adhere to social distancing and complying with requests to self-isolate if they test positive or are identified as a close contact of an infected person, that the virus will be largely kept at bay.
A Department of Health spokesperson said: “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.”
In the Commons on Tuesday, Mr Johnson said he did not believe there was “a risk of a second peak of infections that might overwhelm the NHS”.
Announcing the biggest easing of lockdown yet, he said two households in England will be able to meet indoors and stay overnight – with social distancing.
While he warned all the steps were “reversible”, he confirmed the following venues would be able to reopen:
- Pubs, bars and restaurants but only with a table service indoors, and owners will be asked to keep contact details of customers to help with contact tracing
- Hotels, holiday apartments, campsites and caravan parks but shared facilities must be cleaned properly
- Theatres and music halls but they will not be allowed to hold live performances
- In other changes weddings will be allowed to have 30 attendees, and places of worship will be allowed to hold services but singing will be banned
- Hair salons and barbers will be able to reopen but must have protective measures, such as visors, in place
- Libraries, community centres and bingo halls
- Cinemas, museums and galleries
- Funfairs, theme parks, adventure parks, amusement arcades, outdoor skating rinks and model villages
- Indoor attractions where animals are exhibited, such as at zoos, aquariums, farms, safari parks and wildlife centres
Some other venues will remain closed by law, including nightclubs, casinos, indoor play areas, nail bars and beauty salons, swimming pools and indoor gyms.
Those businesses set to reopen in 10 days’ time have been given government guidance on how they can operate as safely as possible during the coronavirus pandemic.
Initial advice says businesses should keep customers’ contact details for 21 days to help support the track and trace system.
BBC political correspondent Iain Watson said it suggested that decisions on which parts of the economy to reopen were made very recently.
It comes as struggling retailers must pay their quarterly rent to landlords on Wednesday.
Professor John Edmunds, who attends Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage) meetings, said the government’s switch to “one metre-plus” restrictions, alongside the reopening of pubs and restaurants, could put the country at risk of increased Covid-19 transmission.
The London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine academic told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme: “There is a risk that transmission will take off again, so we have to be really vigilant, and this is where the Test and Trace system needs to be really working well to make sure we can stamp out any infections that occur.”
Labour is calling for NHS staff to be tested every week for coronavirus so that patient waiting list backlogs can be safely cleared.
Mr Hunt also backed that call, saying it was important for hospitals to become “Covid free zones” so that the backlog of medical procedures and test s could be dealt with.
The latest figures show a further 171 people had died after testing positive for coronavirus in the UK, taking the total to 42,927.