Boris Johnson will set out a “cautious” plan to relax coronavirus restrictions when he unveils his road map out of lockdown, the Health Secretary has said, despite an accelerated target to offer vaccines to all adults by the end of July.
The Prime Minister will outline his blueprint for easing the stringent measures in England to Parliament on Monday, amid a clamour of warnings from scientists to act gradually and calls from some Tory MPs to lift all legal restrictions by May.
Matt Hancock insisted that, despite the success of the vaccine rollout so far, and the “understandable” urge to return to normal life, the Government’s goal is to take a “cautious but irreversible approach”.
In a series of broadcast interviews on Sunday morning, he said there will be “weeks between the steps” so ministers can “watch carefully” the impact of each relaxation of the restrictions.
Mr Hancock said that one in three adults in the UK has now received a coronavirus vaccine, and that the Government is confident it has the supplies to meet the July 31 target and to vaccinate all adults over 50, and higher risk groups, by April 15.
He told Sky’s Sophy Ridge on Sunday: “The vaccination programme, whilst clearly going very well, will take time to be able to reach all people who have significant vulnerability, especially because we need to get the second jab to everybody.
“We’ve got time that needs to be taken to get this right. The Prime Minister will set out the road map tomorrow and he will set out the full details – taking into account that we need to take a cautious but irreversible approach, that’s the goal.”
Leading epidemiologist Professor John Edmunds, a member of the Government’s Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage), said any easing of the lockdown must be gradual to prevent a surge in hospital admissions and deaths.
He told BBC One’s The Andrew Marr Show that, while vaccinating all adults by the end of July will make a “huge difference”, easing restrictions rapidly would put the NHS under pressure again.
“If we eased off very rapidly now, we would get another surge in hospitalisations, so we have to ease very gradually. Otherwise we will put the health service under pressure again and we’ll get a surge in hospitalisations, and indeed deaths,” he said.
But Conservative former chief whip Mark Harper, leader of the Covid Recovery Group of lockdown-sceptic backbenchers, said all legal restrictions put in place in response to the pandemic should be lifted by the end of April.
He told the BBC that such a plan represents “a fairly cautious approach” because it would mean the top nine priority groups will have received a first dose of vaccine by then.
Mr Harper said restrictions should not remain in place simply to prevent the emergence of new variants, warning that such a policy would result in curbs being in place indefinitely.
“If we are going to say we are so worried about a future variant that might not be susceptible to the vaccine, that’s a recipe for never unlocking our economy and our society, and I don’t think that’s really an acceptable proposition.”
Mr Harper added that he hoped the Prime Minister’s road map “will be something that I and my colleagues can support”.
Mr Johnson will chair a meeting of senior ministers on Sunday, known as the “Covid S” committee, to finalise his road map before it is signed off by the Cabinet on Monday.
He will then unveil the plans to MPs in the Commons later that afternoon and is expected to lead a Downing Street press conference on Monday evening.
In other developments:
– A further 215 people died within 28 days of testing positive for Covid-19 as of Sunday, while there were another 9,834 lab-confirmed cases of coronavirus in the UK.
– Prof John Edmunds said the vaccine rollout should turn to children “as fast as we can”, saying there will “continue to be major disruption in schools until we have vaccinated our children”.
– An announcement on the vaccine priority order for under-50s is expected to be made this week, Professor Adam Finn, a member of the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation (JCVI), said.
– Mr Hancock declined to apologise amid calls for greater accountability after the High Court ruled that the Government unlawfully failed to publish details of billions of pounds’ worth of coronavirus-related contracts.
– Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby said the pandemic has “stripped the paper off the cracks” in society and people need to have confidence that the “road map” out of lockdown will be delivered.
– Surge testing is to be rolled out in Brentwood, Essex, after a case of the South Africa coronavirus variant was found. People living in the area are “strongly encouraged” to take a test when offered, whether or not they have any symptoms of the virus.
The road map will confirm plans to allow care home residents to hold hands with a regular indoor visitor from March 8, and is expected to also detail an easing of restrictions on outdoor socialising within weeks.
Mr Hancock said the blueprint will provide guidance on summer holidays and the reopening of schools – with pupils in all year groups widely expected to return to the classroom from March 8.
Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer said all children should “ideally” be back in England’s schools on that date, rejecting pressure from unions to call for a phased return.
Sir Keir said he hopes Mr Johnson will set out a “cautious, careful” exit from lockdown in the road map but the full return of schools should be the aim.
His stance came after a coalition of unions and professional bodies warned that reopening schools to all pupils in England at the same time would be “reckless” and could risk another spike in Covid-19 infections.
Sir Keir said: “Ideally, I would like to see all schools back open on March 8 and all children back into schools on March 8.
“I have been worried through the pandemic – a number of people have – about the impact that being out of school has on, particularly, vulnerable children and the attainment gap is getting bigger.”
He said the Government will have to follow the data and the scientific advice on the issue, “but that’s what we should be working towards”.
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