Boris Johnson has said he is “optimistic” about the prospects of setting out plans for easing lockdown restrictions in England later this month.
The Prime Minister said that although the overall number of Covid-19 case numbers remained high, the infection rate is starting to fall and the vaccination programme rollout has made “huge progress”.
Johnson’s ‘roadmap’ out of lockdown
Speaking to reporters during a visit to a vaccine manufacturing facility in Teesside, the Prime Minister said: “I’m optimistic, I won’t hide it from you. I’m optimistic but we have to be cautious”.
His comments come just a week before he is set to lay out his ‘roadmap’ for easing restrictions in England, although scientists have continued to urge caution.
One scientist advising the government said easing the current controls risked a third wave as big as the current one if they moved too quickly.
However, ministers remain confident after the vaccination programme rollout successfully met the deadline of offering everyone in the top four priority groups - including the over-70’s - their first dose by 15 February.
Mr Johnson said the efficacy of the vaccines is helping to drive down infection rates, which is a key factor in determining how quickly England will be able to ease restrictions.
He said: “Although the number is beginning to come down, and perhaps starting to come down quite fast, we need to look at the data very, very hard.
“Something also that will be very important is the efficacy of the vaccines – are they working in the way that we hope that they are – and making sure they are really helping, along with the lockdown, to drive down the incidence. That is the key thing.”
Reopening schools remains priority
The Prime Minister said that the government’s priority remained the reopening of schools in England.
Mr Johnson has already set 8 March as the earliest day for the reopening, while other sectors are expected to follow soon after. Schools will be given two weeks notice before welcoming pupils back.
The PM said: “Our children’s education is our number one priority, but then working forward, getting non-essential retail open as well and then, in due course, as and when we can prudently and cautiously, of course we want to be opening hospitality as well.”
Professor Neil Ferguson, a No10 adviser, said on Friday (12 February) that the government will “have some bandwidth” to start reopening schools in March before potentially beginning to ease other restrictions in April. He is hopeful the nation could be in its “final lockdown”.
Over the weekend, 63 Tory MPs wrote to the Prime Minister calling for the easing of restrictions to begin in March and for analysis to be released justifying any measures staying in place.
Senior Tory backbencher Steve Baker, who is the deputy chair of the lockdown sceptic Covid Research Group, said schools should return on 8 March, hospitality should reopen by Easter and all of elements of society by 1 May, the date when all people in the top nine priority groups should have been offered a vaccine.
Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab rejected the proposal, speaking on the BBC’s Andrew Marr on Sunday (14 February), that the government would be “cautious”.
No details have been released yet from Downing Street about possible dates for the reopening of businesses and hospitality in England.