Promising data from Oxford University showing the Astrazeneca vaccine may cut Covid transmission has raised hopes that the UK may in the near future be able to find a sustainable path out of lockdown.
Results showed the jab offers 76 per cent protection up to three months after the first dose and could reduce transmission by 67 per cent.
That is key because cutting transmission means infection levels could come down faster than they would otherwise, suggesting the most severe restrictions could be brought to an end more quickly.
However significant hurdles remain, with ministers warning that falling Covid cases and a steady reduction in deaths and hospitalisations do not automatically signal an end to the current restrictions.
Public Health England (PHE) said earlier this week it was investigating strains of coronavirus in the UK which have developed a mutation that has been worrying scientists.
Ministers have been warned lockdown restrictions have to be relaxed “very slowly, very cautiously”.
PHE’s coronavirus strategy chief, Dr Susan Hopkins, said on Sunday that measures must be eased slowly so “we can clamp down quite fast” if an increase of cases is seen.
Academics on the Scientific Pandemic Influenza Group on Modelling (Spi-M) have also said deaths will only be “substantially reduced” under a gradual relaxation scenario if vaccines are highly effective at preventing infections in vaccinated individuals, rather than just reducing the severity of disease.
Their model suggested a gradual relaxation of restrictions beginning in April and ending in the winter would only prevent a severe peak if vaccines have 85 per cent infection efficacy.
The research also studied the effects of vaccines having 35 per cent and 60 per cent infection efficacy, and each produced surges of more than 1,500 deaths per day if restrictions were eased.
What measures are in place now?
The current restrictions were enshrined officially to last until 31 March but a further, recent extension to those powers permits local councils to close pubs, restaurants and shops until July.
Boris Johnson said last week that the soonest restrictions could begin to be eased and schools fully reopened is 8 March – a delay to the mid-February date some had hoped for when the latest lockdown was first announced at the beginning of January.
He has promised to unveil further details about the unlocking on 22 February.
But he is coming under particular pressure from backbenchers in his own party.
Mark Harper, chairman of the Covid Recovery Group which is made up of lockdown-sceptic Conservative MPs, has urged the government to ease lockdown restrictions from 8 March following promising data on vaccine effectiveness.
Mr Harper said: “With better and better news by the day on the vaccination rollout and its effectiveness, the government has got to start addressing its mind to the harms caused by the measures we’re putting in place to control Covid, as well as to the harms caused by Covid itself.
”Covid is a deadly disease, however lockdowns and restrictions cause immense damage to people’s health and livelihoods, and we need to lift them as soon as it is safe to do so.”
Lockdown restrictions in Scotland will remain in force until at least the end of February, Nicola Sturgeon has said.
The Welsh first minister, Mark Drakeford, has said lockdown there will continue for several more weeks.
And in Northern Ireland, First Minister Arlene Foster confirmed the lockdown would be extended to 5 March.
First to benefit from any loosening of the rules will likely be schools, which the government has said is their priority.
Schools in Scotland will return on a phased basis from 22 February subject to final confirmation in two weeks’ time.
Under the plan, if confirmed, all children under school age in early learning and childcare will return.
Pupils in Primary 1 to Primary 3 will also be allowed back into school, as will those in the senior phase of secondary school.
Wales is also looking at reopening schools in February, with the youngest pupils being prioritised if case numbers continue to fall.
This may provide a blueprint for how the rest of the UK will tackle the issue.
Mr Johnson said the earliest schools will reopen is 8 March – and only if the government achieves its target of vaccinating the most vulnerable groups by mid-February.
In Northern Ireland, Ms Foster and Deputy First Minister Michelle O’Neill said it is not possible to give a definitive date for schools to return, with 8 March the “earliest” possible date.
Pubs, bars and restaurants – many of them closed for the best part of a year – are keen for the economy to be unlocked.
After the first lockdown, the hospitality indsutry was reopened but with strict new rules that included customers having to check in to a venue using a paper form or the NHS app and a ban on standing at the bar.
The government has not revealed its plan for reopening the sector but Mr Johnson did say on Monday that “going down the tiers in a national way” looked to be “better this time round”, suggesting businesses may be permitted to open in one go rather than in a staggered approach.
The picture looks even more uncertain for travel. Just as the government is hailing positive vaccine developments, it is also warning about the potential for mutations of the virus from abroad which it says justifies further restrictions for those arriving in the UK.
The government is pressing ahead with plans for quarantine hotels for international arrivals – although it remains unclear who will be targeted and when the policy will be implemented.
Matt Hancock, the health secretary, was asked by LBC on Wednesday if the scheme will be launched by the end of February.
The Cabinet minister replied: “We’ll set out more details of that when we’re ready to, but you’ve seen that we’re perfectly prepared to take very tough action if that’s what’s needed.”
He went on: “Already there is the very clear legal rules – with the strong enforcement behind it – that we’ve now put in place for anybody entering the country as a passenger at all.
”Whether that is isolation in your own home or in hotels, it is isolation.
“But we’re always open to looking at tougher measures.”