UK medical leaders warn of 'real risk' of virus second wave

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London (AFP)

Medical experts on Wednesday warned the British government to prepare for the "real risk" of a coronavirus second wave just a day after the biggest lifting yet of lockdown restrictions in England.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson had on Tuesday announced what he called the beginning of the end of "national hibernation", allowing pubs, hotels, restaurants, museums and galleries in England to reopen on July 4.

But experts are cautioning against moving too fast and their warning came just as thousands of people took advantage of soaring temperatures, flocking to beaches in resorts such as Southend-on-Sea, in southeast England.

"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," said the experts in an open letter printed in the British Medical Journal.

The letter added that the overriding task was "to ensure that the country is adequately prepared to contain a second phase".

It was signed by 16 leading experts, including the heads of the Royal College of Surgeons, the Faculty of Public Health and the Royal College of Nursing.

Johnson relaxed a rule demanding people stay two metres apart to one metre, subject to measures such as the use of face coverings.

The decision was seen as vital to large parts of the economy, which faces recession and large-scale job losses after more than three months of closure and stay-at-home restrictions.

The International Monetary Fund (IMF) on Wednesday forecast that the British economy would shrink 10.2 percent this year.

- 'Extraordinarily risky' -

But a former government chief scientific adviser, David King, told Sky News television that lifting lockdown was "extraordinarily risky", and a political decision rather than a scientific one.

Johnson stressed that the virus had not gone away, and on Tuesday said he "will not hesitate to apply the brakes and re-introduce restrictions" if needed.

In response to the letter, his spokesman said the government had acted to stop the state-run National Health Service (NHS) becoming overwhelmed in the recent outbreak.

"We will continue to ensure our health and care services have the resources they need and are working closely with the NHS to prepare for the winter," he said.

Six temporary hospitals erected at the height of the outbreak -- and a seventh due for completion next month -- are not currently being used but will be kept on standby.

"We may still need the Nightingale hospitals in the future and will maintain that extra capacity," the spokesman said.

Britain has recorded nearly 43,000 deaths of those who have tested positive for COVID-19 -- the worst toll in Europe -- and announced another 171 fatalities on Tuesday.

However, the real figure is likely closer to 60,000, based on an analysis of excess deaths.

The relaxation announced by Johnson on Tuesday applies only to England as the Scottish, Northern Irish and Welsh devolved administrations set their own guidelines.

In Scotland, First Minister Nicola Sturgeon on Wednesday said pubs, hairdressers and cinemas will be able to reopen from July 15 but only if there is a continued decline in coronavirus cases.