Boris Johnson has been given a March 8 target by Tory lockdown sceptics to start easing coronavirus curbs.
Former chief whip Mark Harper, chairman of the Tory backbench Covid Recovery Group, said restrictions should not remain in place for “a second longer” once the vaccine has protected priority groups.
Around 15 million people are expected to be vaccinated by mid-February, covering care home residents, the over-70s, clinically extremely vulnerable people and frontline health and care staff.
Those groups accounted for 88% of fatalities in the first wave and the Government is in a race against time to protect them with a first dose of vaccine.
Mr Harper suggested that once they had received their jab – and it has been given time to become effective – there should be no excuse for keeping England’s national lockdown in place.
More than 2.3 million people have so far received a jab and Mr Harper said achieving the mid-February goal must remain the “central, overriding focus” for ministers.
He said that “like the disease, lockdowns and restrictions cause immense harm”.
“So for today’s progress to really mean something to the millions of people across the country who are doing the right thing and obeying the law, the Government must urgently set out exactly how today’s progress begins to translate into a return to normal life for us all and show a clear exit strategy – a route back to freedom.”
With a lag of three weeks between the vaccine being administered and offering its full protection, Mr Harper said “if we hit the crucial February 15 deadline, the four top-risk groups will have immunity by March 8”.
“At that point – once all the key groups have become immune to Covid – what possible reason could there be for keeping severe restrictions in place a second longer?
“For people to have hope, they need to know exactly how and when the Government will lift restrictions and when our freedoms, economy and health prospects will be fully restored.”
He called for clarity on what other tests need to be met – for example death rates, hospital admissions or capacity – to lift the lockdown.
“The goalposts must not keep shifting,” he said.
“These cycles of lockdowns and restrictions have an impact on jobs, health and life chances that will be visible for years to come.
“It’s vital we act as swiftly as we possibly can to vaccinate those most at risk, so that we reduce harm caused by Covid, but then also to lift restrictions when it is safe to do so.”
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