It comes as more than 1,200 ‘Zero Covid’ scientists accused the UK of ‘endangering the world’ by pressing on with ‘Freedom Day’ on July 19.
Professor John Edmunds, of the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine and the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (SAGE), said that with the lifting of lockdown restrictions in England on Monday the disease would continue to spread.
‘I think this wave of the epidemic will be quite long and drawn out,’ he told the BBC Radio 4 programme. ‘My hunch is that we are looking at a high level of incidence for a protracted period right through the summer and probably through much of the autumn.’
Jeremy Hunt, who is now chairman of the Commons Health and Social Care Committee, said the situation was ‘very serious’.
‘The warning light on the NHS dashboard is not flashing amber, it is flashing red,’ he told the BBC Radio 4 Today programme.
Yesterday, 717 people with Covid-19 were admitted to hospital, taking the total number in hospital to 3,964. This is twice what it was at the start of July but still down 90 per cent on the January peak.
Daily cases have topped 50,000 for the first time since mid-January as another 51,870 tested positive yesterday. Deaths are up 57 per cent in a week and there were another 49 yesterday.
Prof Edmunds said there would be a surge in cases among unvaccinated Britons this summer because the unlocking is coming too early.
‘We started easing restrictions before everybody was vaccinated. That is going to lead to infections in the unvaccinated people – primarily in this instance the younger individuals. It is inevitable that that was going to happen.’
Prof Edmunds said cases could reach 100,000 a day within weeks because the number of infections has so far been doubling every two weeks.
‘We are at about 50,000 a day now. The epidemic has been doubling roughly every two weeks and so if we allow things as they are for another couple of weeks you could expect it to get to 100,000 cases a day,’ he said.
Jeremy Hunt (pictured), who is now chairman of the Commons Health and Social Care Committee, said the situation was ‘very serious’
Experts who met for an emergency summit on Friday compared Freedom Day to a ‘murderous’ policy of ‘herd immunity by mass infection’.
Mr Hunt added: ‘Covid hospital patients are doubling every two weeks. That means we are heading for 10,000 Covid hospital patients by the end of August, which is about 20 times higher than this time last year. It is a very serious situation.
‘I think coming into September we are almost certainly going to see infections reach a new daily peak going above the 68,000 daily level, which was the previous daily record in January.
‘If they are still going up as the schools are coming back I think we are going to have to reconsider some very difficult decisions. How we behave over the next few weeks will have a material difference.’
Mr Hunt said the Government needed to make changes to the NHS Covid app amid signs people were deleting it due to the high numbers being ‘pinged’ and told to self-isolate.
‘The risk with that app is that it is beginning to lose social consent and so we should either make it less sensitive or move to a system where you have to get a test when you are pinged.
‘The risk is that if people are deleting the app then you can’t even ping them to ask them to have a test.’
Professor Michael Baker, a member of the New Zealand government’s Covid advisory group, told the Independent his colleagues were ‘amazed’ and ‘astounded’ when the UK decided to remove restrictions despite rising case numbers.
Professor Stephen Duckett, Australia’s former health secretary, said the UK needed to make sure case numbers were under control before lifting restrictions.
And Professor Jose M Martin-Moreno, from the University of Valencia in Spain, said: ‘UK policy affects not only UK citizens, it affects the world. We cannot understand why this [unlocking] is happening.’
Professor Christina Pagel, a SAGE member, said Britain’s position as a dominant transport hub put other countries at risk.
Speaking at the online summit, she said: ‘What I’m most worried about is the potential for a new variant to emerge this summer. When you have incredibly high levels of Covid, which we have now in England – and it’s not going to go away any time soon – and a partially vaccinated population, any mutation that can infect vaccinated people better has a big selection advantage and can spread.’
William Haseltine, an eminent US scientist renowned for his work on HIV/Aids and cancer at Harvard University, said the UK was now lacking in ‘sensible’ policies and described the strategy of herd immunity as ‘murderous’.
Meanwhile, the Beta variant of the coronavirus spreading in France may evade vaccines, Professor Edmunds warned.
The Government has said travellers returning from France – unlike other amber list destinations – must continue to self-isolate even if they are fully vaccinated.
The SAGE adviser said ministers were right to be concerned because the Beta variant does not react as well to the vaccine.
‘The Beta variant has remained a threat throughout. It is probably less infectious than the Delta variant that is spreading here in the UK at the moment. Where it has an advantage is that it is able to escape the immune response to a better extent,’ he told the BBC Radio 4 Today programme.
‘As the population here becomes more and more immune, the conditions are right then for the Beta variant to get an advantage, so I can understand the concern.
‘Of the variants that are out there and are known about, that one has always been a threat to us. There is some good evidence from South Africa that it can evade the immune response generated by the AstraZeneca vaccine more efficiently.’
The move has raised eyebrows because in the seven days to July 14 there were 244,691 Covid cases in the UK, compared with 27,713 in France – while France’s vaccination rates have almost caught up with Britain’s.