Boris Johnson has promised there will be no return to lockdown after England emerges from the current round of restrictions, declaring that next week’s roadmap to recovery will set out “cautious but irreversible” steps back to normal life.
But the prime minister resisted Conservative backbench calls for firm deadlines to reopen shops, pubs and restaurants, saying that the 22 February document will offer only dates for the “earliest possible” relaxation of controls.
Urging Britons to be “optimistic but also patient”, Mr Johnson told a Downing Street press conference: “I hope there isn’t that much longer to go now… I want this lockdown to be the last.”
On a visit to a vaccination centre in southeast London earlier in the day, the PM sent clear signals that easing of restrictions will be slower than demanded by backbench critics, in the hope of avoiding a damaging return to lockdown.
He is coming under growing pressure from backbench Tories to restart the economy, with the Covid Recovery Group saying there will be no justification for “unnecessary restrictions” after over-50s get the jab in April.
But he insisted: “We’ve got to be very prudent. What we want to see is progress that is cautious but irreversible and I think that’s what the public and people up and down the country will want to see.”
The prime minister confirmed his 8 March target for reopening schools and said he was “increasingly confident and optimistic” about the possibility for lifting other restrictions – even suggesting that rapid-turnaround tests could be used to allow the return of nightclubs and theatres.
He hailed the completion of the first phase of vaccinations, covering over-70s, health and care workers and people with serious health conditions, as “an unprecedented national achievement” and said that 1 million over-65s were now receiving their invitations for a jab.
But he admitted he could offer “no cast-iron guarantees” that there would not be further setbacks, and said he “won’t hesitate” to delay easements if infection rates rise.
NHS England chief executive Sir Simon Stevens said the end of April had been set as the target to vaccinate the top nine priority groups, including all over-50s, but added that if vaccine supplies increase “we think we can go faster”.
Estimating that the next 10-11 weeks could see double the number of jabs as in the last 10-11 weeks –including many second doses for those in the first wave of vaccinations – he told the prime minister: “Give us the tools – the vaccines – and we will finish the job.”
Top medics and scientists will now be involved with senior ministers including Mr Johnson, health secretary Matt Hancock, chancellor Rishi Sunak and Cabinet Office minister Michael Gove in a series of meetings over the coming days to thrash out Monday’s blueprint for recovery.
Sources within government insisted that vital data on the effect of the vaccines on hospitalisations, deaths and transmission of the virus were still coming in, and stressed that no final decisions have been made. A final decision on the way forward could come as late as the weekend.
Mr Johnson himself said that reports suggesting that social contact curbs could be relaxed next month, shops reopened within weeks and self-catering holidays permitted by Easter should be taken “with a pinch of salt”.
“When I explain what we are going to do, you will hear it directly from me,” he promised.
The PM’s promise of an “irreversible” move away from restrictions sparked alarm among public health experts, who warned that Covid-19 could still flare up even if over-50s are vaccinated as planned.
Latest data showed that the 9,765 positive tests reported on Monday remain higher than in September, while more people are in hospital than at the peak of the first wave last April. Some 230 deaths were reported on Monday, with the seven-day total down more than 26 per cent on the previous week.
Public health professor Gabriel Scally, of Bristol University, told The Independent that the UK remains far from the “nirvana” of being able to relax its guard.
Opening up retail and hospitality risked a spike in transmission among non-vaccinated groups, increasing the likelihood of dangerous new variants emerging, he warned, pointing to reports of seven “worrisome” mutations detected in the US in recent days.
And while older age-groups may be protected from serious illness and death, younger people still risk being struck down by “long Covid”.
“OK, numbers of cases are coming down, but we were up at the top of Everest and it is a long way down,” said Prof Scally. “We are still in a really dangerous situation and yet again they are talking about opening up.
“When the prime minister says ‘irreversible’, why would anyone believe him, given his appalling track record on foreseeing the development of the pandemic so far?”
Rather than talking about dates for reopening, ministers should be ramping up the test and trace system and providing better support for those told to isolate, as well as funding extra space to allow better distancing and ventilation in schools, he said.
Former minister Harriett Baldwin told The Independent that data on vaccine effectiveness appeared to show it outstripping expectations.
“The PM is right to take into account the best information from the scientists, but this is all going to schedule, so we could be able to lift everything by 1 May if things continue at this cracking pace,” she said. “We are keen to give the economy the best shot in the arm it can have, which is to have certainty about dates.”
Mr Johnson again ruled out the issuing of “vaccine passports” for domestic use, but said that documentation to allow international travel was “very much in the mix down the road”, adding: “I think that is going to happen.”
The travel industry called for work on the scheme to be stepped up to allow it to be operational by the summer holiday season.
Mark Tanzer, chief executive of travel agents’ trade body Abta, said: “The current restrictions have not only stopped travel but have dented people’s confidence in booking.
“We believe that there should be a plan for the starting up of travel again and the government needs to be working on that now, not waiting till the summer. We’re confident that if that’s put in place then people will be able to travel and they can book now for summer holidays.”