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Matt Hancock has outlined four factors the government says it will consider before lifting lockdown.
The health secretary laid out the metrics while responding to Mark Harper, who is chair of the COVID Recovery Group of lockdown-sceptic Tory MPs.
Speaking in the Commons on Tuesday, Harper asked: “Given the vaccine rollout is going so well, and ahead of where I suspect the secretary of state thought it would be, can I ask him to confirm that on 8 March when we start seeing schools go back that it’ll be those metrics – deaths and hospitalisations, as they fall – which will guide the reopening, not just of schools, but of the rest of the economy?”
Hancock said four metrics had been set out to consider before easing the national restrictions: deaths, hospitalisations, the state of new coronavirus variants and the vaccination rollout.
Watch: Matt Hancock says we must come down hard on South Africa variant
The four factors to watch are:
Falling deaths: Hancock has said he expects deaths to fall faster than hospitalisations because older people who are higher up in the vaccination groups are more likely to die by a greater degree than they are more likely to use hospital beds.
The UK is on course to vaccinate the 15 million people in the top four cohorts by the 15 February deadline.
Falling hospitalisations: the health secretary said hospitalisations were likely to fall later so this could have an effect on when restrictions are lifted, even if deaths fall.
State of new variants: A UK variant of coronavirus has developed a new, concerning mutation in a small number of cases that scientists say makes it similar to South African and Brazilian variants and could reduce the efficacy of vaccines.
There have been 11 reports of the variant that feature the mutation, mostly in South West England.
Professor Andrew Pollard from the Oxford University vaccine group said the mutation could reduce the impact of all vaccines but reassured people the jabs currently available would still reduce deaths and said altered vaccines could be available before the end of the year.
Vaccination programme rollout: the vaccination programme has been a success, with more than 10 million receiving at least one dose of the jab.
Government data up to 2 February shows 9,646,715 first jabs have been given in the UK and a further 496,796 second doses have been administered.
Based on the latest figures, an average of 407,402 first doses of vaccine would be needed each day in order to meet the government’s target of 15 million first doses by 15 February.
Tory MP Harper reiterated a call for the government to ease lockdown restrictions from 8 March “once the top four risk groups have been vaccinated and protected by that date”, after preliminary results from a study showed the Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccine cut transmission rates by 67%.
He said these groups account for about 88% of deaths and about 55% of hospitalisations from COVID.
Harper said: “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.”
But some scientists have urged caution in easing restrictions.
Last week Professor Adam Finn, a member of the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation, warned against easing restrictions too early.
He told the Radio Times: “You could argue when you've immunised all the people at high risk or very large number of them that's the end of the problem.
“Unfortunately, though, it isn't really, because once we've done that there will still be these vaccines which are not 100% effective and not 100% of people will have had them.
“And you do see serious illness in younger people to an extent.
“There will still be a lot of vulnerable people in the population, in the sense that they've not had the infection. So if we all of a sudden in April sort of said ‘right, this is over’ and went back to normal we would then have another enormous wave of the infection and a lot of people would end up being sick and it would be very disruptive.”
Last month Professor John Edmunds, an epidemiologist who is part of Sage, cautioned against easing restrictions early even if the target for COVID-19 vaccinations is met.
He told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme: “First of all, vaccines aren’t ever 100% protective, and so even those that have been vaccinated would be still at some risk.
“Secondly, it is only a small fraction of the population who would have been vaccinated and if you look at the hospitalisations at the moment, about half of them are in the under 70s, and they are not in the first wave to be vaccinated.
“If we relaxed our restrictions we would immediately put the NHS under enormous pressure again.”
Watch: What you can and can't do during England's third national lockdown