Boris Johnson has moved to rein in expectations of a swift exit from lockdown, amid Downing Street concern that the success of the UK’s vaccination campaign is fuelling unrealisable hopes of a speedy return to normality after almost a year of social and economic restrictions.
Days ahead of the unveiling of the prime minister’s blueprint for the relaxation of restrictions in England, government sources warned that they were still awaiting the kind of definitive evidence on vaccine efficacy which would allow firm dates to be set for the return of shops, pubs, restaurants and travel.
Mr Johnson said that the easing of restrictions in his roadmap to recovery on Monday will be “cautious and prudent”, with the hospitality industry likely to be among the last to reopen its doors.
And he backed a member of his Scientific Advisory Group on Emergencies (Sage) who said any removal of curbs must be driven by “data not dates”.
Prof Dame Angela McLean warned that unwinding the national lockdown too fast would risk a fresh wave of serious illness and deaths. Available data on the impact of the vaccines shows that proportion of deaths among the over-80s “hasn’t budged yet”, she said.
Speaking to the House of Commons Science and Technology Committee, the Ministry of Defence chief scientific adviser said: “I think we can say very, very clearly, don’t unlock too fast because if you unlock a lot while a lot of the most vulnerable are still unvaccinated, genuinely we risk disaster frankly.”
There is concern within government that widespread speculation that the UK could complete its vaccination programme weeks or months ahead of schedule could undermine compliance with ongoing curbs on behaviour.
Sources firmly rejected suggestions that the government privately expects that over-50s would get the jab by March and all other adults by the summer, insisting that the target dates of the start of May and September respectively remain in place.
Amid growing clamour from Conservative MPs and businesses for an end to constraints, Whitehall sources said the government would continue to take a cautious approach, taking into account the possibility of interruptions to vaccine supply and the development of new variants of Covid-19.
While the UK has hit more than 500,000 first jabs on several days, it would be wrong to assume that this will be achieved every day, especially as demand will ramp up from mid-March for second doses for those receiving vaccination in the first wave, said one insider close to the programme.
Latest daily figures showed 364,865 first doses, bringing the UK total to 15,940,972. Meanwhile, some 738 deaths were confirmed on Wednesday, with the seven-day total 26 per cent down on the previous week, and 12,718 positive tests were reported.
Foreign secretary Dominic Raab played down reports that daily infections would have to be below 1,000 for society to reopen, saying: “There’s no single cast-iron formula or one particular indicator that above all other considerations can decide this.”
Despite pressure for precise dates for successive easing of restrictions, it is understood that Mr Johnson will not set out firm timings in his statement on Monday, instead outlining the earliest points at which various relaxations could come, dependent on the development of the pandemic.
He has made clear he wants schools to reopen on 8 March, though it is not yet certain whether the return to classrooms will be staggered, as in Scotland where Nicola Sturgeon has announced the return of only the youngest children and those who need access to practical resources from next Monday.
Non-essential retail is expected to follow no earlier than late March or early April, with hospitality waiting at least until late April and potentially considerably longer.
But Vaccine Taskforce member and Oxford University professor of medicine Sir John Bell warned that public pressure for relaxations will grow as immunity increases.
“It’s not plausible to imagine a world where we vaccinate the whole country and everybody believes they are still in a place we were in six months ago,” said Sir John. “It’s just not reasonable.
“I think we are going to have to allow people to adapt their behaviours appropriately if they have actually had the vaccine. It’s better to plan for that than to assume you can hold back the water with a dam, because you won’t be able to.”
Government sources said fresh data on the efficacy of vaccines in reducing deaths and serious illness was filtering through on a daily basis, as more over-80s pass the three-week point at which the first jab is believed to deliver its maximum protection.
Further reports towards the end of the week will be considered by Mr Johnson with key ministers like health secretary Matt Hancock, chancellor Rishi Sunak and Cabinet Office minister Michael Gove, along with scientific advisers Chris Whitty and Patrick Vallance, before the roadmap is finalised, possibly as late as Sunday.
It is expected to be presented to cabinet on Monday morning and unveiled in the House of Commons later that day, though it has not yet been decided whether Mr Johnson will make a TV address to the nation later in the day.
Speaking during a visit to a mass vaccination centre in Cwmbran, south Wales, the prime minister said he backed Prof McLean’s warning that any unlocking should be based on “data, not dates”.
“I do think that’s absolutely right,” he said.
“That’s why we’ll be setting out what we can on Monday 22nd about the way ahead and it’ll be based firmly on a cautious and prudent approach to coming out of lockdown in such a way to be irreversible.”
He left no doubt that pubs and restaurants would be towards the back of the queue for reopening, saying: “We need to go in stages, we need to go cautiously.
“You perhaps remember from last year that we opened up hospitality fully as one of the last things that that we did, because there is obviously an extra risk of transmission from hospitality.”
Mr Johnson said there were “encouraging signs” that the vaccination campaign was driving the recent decline in Covid-19 cases, but said it was still too early for a definitive judgement.
Labour’s shadow health secretary Jonathan Ashworth said: “This has to be the last lockdown. For some time, I’ve said we should be driven by the data, not dates. So I think that Boris Johnson is correct to say that. We’ve got to proceed with caution.
“Yes, infection rates are coming down, hospitalisations are coming down, but they’re still quite high and there’s still a lot of people getting ill and ending up in hospital. Vaccination is a success but we’ve got to lock in the success of vaccination by doing more to break transmission chains, by doing more to stop the spread.”