The World Health Organization’s European director has issued a dire warning to countries thinking about coming out of lockdown, saying the “overwhelming majority remain vulnerable”.
Hans Kluge said too many governments have previously “reopened too fast and lost hard-earned gains”.
It comes as Europe begins to recover from the second wave of the coronavirus pandemic, with cases and deaths beginning to fall.
However, Dr Kluge said the vaccine rollout is currently nowhere near extensive enough to control the pandemic, adding it should not provide governments with “a false sense of security” for leaving lockdown.
In a briefing on Thursday, Dr Kluge warned:
While infection rates are falling, there are still one million cases a week across Europe
The 14-day infection rate in 17 countries remains above 400 cases per 100,000 people
Only 1.5% of people in the 29 countries which are rolling out vaccines have received their full course
Meanwhile, he added his concern about the spread of new variants of the virus. While the general fall in cases is “good news”, he said, it “conceals increasing numbers of outbreaks and community spread involving variants of concern”.
It has been predicted the new and more infectious variant first found in Kent, England, will become the world’s dominant strain of the virus. And Dr Kluge said the emergence of such variants is a reason for governments to avoid “rash decisions”.
“At this point the overwhelming majority of European countries remain vulnerable,” he told the briefing. “Right now it’s a thin line between the hope of a vaccine and a false sense of security.
“This warrants measured decision making at this critical juncture. Time and again have we seen countries reopen too fast and lose hard-earned gains.
“We must do everything in our power to reduce transmission and delay mutations that may influence vaccine efficacy.”
This has been a concern with the Oxford/AstraZeneca jab, said to be less effective against the South African variant – though the WHO has officially recommended it for use in all adults.
Dr Kluge went on: “Unless we hold transmission now, the expected benefits from vaccinations in controlling this pandemic may not be evident.
“Vaccines are essential but as of now they are not sufficient to control the pandemic.”
The issue of “unlocking” has been prominent in England from the very moment Boris Johnson imposed a third lockdown on the country on 6 January.
Lockdown sceptics on Johnson’s Conservative backbenches are desperate for all restrictions to be lifted as soon as possible, citing the UK’s successful rollout of vaccines, and have been uncompromising with their demands.
Watch: Boris Johnson hails 'great strides' made in vaccinating most vulnerable
Scientific advisers, however, have warned Johnson further “explosive epidemics” will still be possible if the lockdown is lifted before enough people have been vaccinated.
One report to the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage) even suggested the government could have to wait until September for a full lifting of the lockdown.
As mentioned by Dr Kluge on Thursday, the issue has been further clouded by the emergence of new variants, and concerns over whether the vaccines will be effective against them.
For now, though, the government aims to have given a vaccine to people in the nine priority groups – over-50s, care home residents, extremely clinically vulnerable people and over-16s with underlying health conditions – by the end of April.
Johnson, for his part, appears to be showing more caution than he did after easing the first lockdown. Last summer, he urged people who are able to work from home to return to their workplaces and encouraged people to gather in restaurants with the half-price “Eat Out to Help Out” scheme.
So far, the PM has only said the lockdown will start to be eased, as opposed to fully lifted, on 8 March “at the earliest”. He is set to share a “road map” for easing the restrictions on 22 February.
Watch: What you can and can't do during England's third national lockdown