Boris Johnson has made a personal appeal for caution telling the public it’s “still early days” to discuss unwinding England’s national lockdown amid “very, very high” coronavirus infection rates.
The prime minister is due to set out a “roadmap” on 22 February on how the government intends to reopen society after analysing the findings of a critical report being produced by Public Health England (PHE) on the effectiveness of the vaccine rollout and data on transmission.
In a short video posted on social media, Mr Johnson reiterated his promise to announce a “steady programme for beginning to unlock” in just over two weeks and said the vaccine programme was proceeding at “huge rate of knots”, with nearly 12 million people now having received a first dose.
Of the plan he said the government would be “giving everybody some clarity insofar as we can about how we hope to unlock” beginning with ministers’ priority of a phased reopening of schools from 8 March.
However, the prime minister warned: “I want to stress that it is still early days and we have rates of infection in this country [that are] still very, very high and [have] more people almost twice as many people in our hospitals with Covid now than there were back at the peak in April.
The newspaper said hospitality venues will initially be restricted to serving takeaway drinks so that customers are encouraged to stay outdoors because of the reduced transmission risk compared to sitting inside.
The so-called “scotch egg rule” – under which alcohol could only be served with a substantial meal – is also believed to be on the way out after the prime minister ordered a “simplification” of the rules when the country exits the national lockdown.
The Telegraph also suggested ministers were considering the reopening of “dry” pubs in April to allay concerns of scientific advisers who have warned about the potential effects of drinking and social distancing.
But a government source told The Independent: “We are not going to open pubs that can’t sell booze. What would be the point of that?”.
Dr Clive Dix, the new interim head of the UK’s vaccine taskforce, appeared bullish about meeting of the new pledge on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme.
“Every time we’ve been set an objective in the taskforce, we’ve met it and we will work day and night to ensure we meet whatever the target that is feasible can be met,” he said.
“I’m very optimistic we’ll definitely meet the May target. I’m not sure where the June number came from, but we’ve still got then quite a few people to vaccinate – 25 maybe 30 million. Whether it will be done in a month I’m not sure about that.”
But confirmation of the date also led to immediate calls from Tory backbenchers for the government to accelerate the reopening of society, with the chairman of the Covid Recovery Group, Mark Harper, saying it would be “almost impossible to justify having any restrictions in place” once the over-50s had been vaccinated.
He said: “Just like Covid, lockdowns and restrictions cause immense harm to people’s health and livelihoods and we need to lift them as soon as it is safe to do so. Further, once the top four risk groups have been vaccinated by 15 February, and protected by 8 March, the government must start easing the restrictions.
The former chief whip also asked the prime minister to consider getting pupils back into classrooms this month rather than delay until his target date of 8 March.