Coronavirus case numbers will have to be “significantly lower” before people are allowed to hug each other again, a leading scientist has said.
Professor Sir Mark Walport, former chief scientific adviser to the government, said the current level of COVID-19 cases doesn’t permit physical contact with others.
Although England’s lockdown was eased on Monday, with people allowed to meet outside as two households or using the rule of six, the UK is still averaging about 5,000 daily coronavirus cases.
While more than 30 million people have had the first dose of a COVID vaccine, about 37 million more have not been immunised.
Watch: New government advert warns people not to meet indoors
Asked about when people could hug again, Walport told Times Radio on Monday: “I think that when the evidence shows that the case number is really, really low indeed, that’s the point, so some degree of caution makes sense.
“We’re also learning more about the effectiveness of the vaccine every day at the moment – as more and more people get the vaccine then we will learn from the numbers.”
When asked what he would consider to be “very, very low indeed”, he said: “Well, how long is a piece of string?
“As I say, it’s significantly lower than we’ve got at the moment, you know, 5,000 cases a day is roughly where we were at the end of September, and certainly if this was on an upward trajectory we would be pretty worried at the sorts of numbers.
“Somewhere around 0.3% to 0.4% of the population across the UK on any day being infected – that’s the prevalence of the infection.”
Asked about hugging between grandparents and grandchildren in a separate interview on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme, he said: “Be very cautious is the answer.
“The transmission outdoors is much less, but it is actually proximity at the end of the day – that is the important issue in transmission from one person to another.
“And prolonged close proximity outside carries its own risks.
“So people are going to have to exercise their judgment, but hopefully in a cautious way.”
The government has unveiled a new slogan to stress the importance of ventilation in reducing the spread of COVID-19: “Hands, Face, Space and Fresh Air.”
Walport said the slogan serves as a reminder to people not to “sneak into the house” as restrictions ease.
He told Today: “We have vaccinated over half the adult population – over 30 million people – but of course that leaves 37 million people who haven’t been immunised.
“We are a bit concerned about the variants that may be less susceptible to the effects of the vaccine, and certainly in parts of Europe the South African variant has the prevalence of around somewhere around 5% in some parts.
“Vaccines are very good news. And we know that most of the vulnerable population is protected.
“And we also know that increasingly the vaccines reduce the transmission, and even milder disease.”
He told Times Radio: “We know now that airborne transmission is the most important way which this virus transmits, and clearly when you’re outside it gets blown away much more easily.
“And it’s one of the reasons that summer is a safer time for most respiratory viruses.
“We have just come out of a time of year when it takes people a certain amount of persuasion to be outside.
“The bottom line is, there is still quite a lot of infection about and we need to emphasise to people that the relax in the restrictions is outdoors and it doesn’t give people an excuse to sneak into the house.”
Watch: Fitness enthusiasts put through paces as lockdown eases