Leading medics have called for caution over the pace of England’s emergence from coronavirus restrictions, as lockdown-sceptic MPs stepped up pressure on Boris Johnson for a return to normal life.
As coronavirus cases dropped across all regions and age groups, the leader of the influential Covid Recovery Group of Conservative MPs, Mark Harper, said restrictions should be removed entirely by the end of May.
And another senior backbencher, Sir Graham Brady, told The Independent that the success of the vaccination programme should enable the prime minister to make moves to “reopen normal life” in the coming weeks.
Positive UK-wide figures, which today saw seven-day death rates down 16.6 per cent and hospitalisations down 23.1 per cent on the previous week, have emboldened MPs demanding an acceleration of the easing of restrictions.
“Dropping our guard at this stage could waste everything we have endured over the last few weeks,” she said.
“However encouraging it is that case rates and hospitalisations continue to fall across all age groups and regions, it is important to reduce the level of infection in our communities because the rates remain very high.”
Mr Johnson signalled on Wednesday that the roadmap to recovery he intends to unveil in the week of 22 February will take a cautious approach, stressing that levels of infection remain “alarmingly high” and that restrictions would be removed in a gradual and sustainable way.
He has resisted pressure to set out a timescale for the return of social mixing and the opening of hospitality and non-essential shops following the planned reopening of schools on 8 March, with some reports suggesting that retail may return in April and pubs and restaurants not before May.
And the Treasury today dismissed reports that chancellor Rishi Sunak was pushing back against scientists’ focus on getting case numbers down before relaxing controls.
But one Tory MP told The Independent that the mood in the country and in parliament could be expected to shift quickly if the public sees deaths and serious illnesses drop sharply as a result of the vaccination drive.
“It might well be that by the time we get to the end of the February half-term, most parts of the country will have very little Covid around, and people will be asking ‘Why are the schools reopening in Scotland and Wales and not here?’” said the MP.
“We are probably at the point where the pressure from the public – and by extension in parliament – is soon going to be for the rapid release of restrictions.”Mr Harper said he thought ministers could “get rid of restrictions completely” by the end of May when all those over aged 50 are likely to have been offered at least one vaccine jab.
“Back-of-the-envelope calculations that I did based on two million doses a week, you could get the top nine (priority) groups, first doses, and the top four groups, second doses, all done by the end of May,” the former chief whip told BBC Radio 4’s World At One.
“So it seems to me by the time you get to the end of May – no later than that – you should be in a position to get rid of restrictions completely.”
And Sir Graham, the chair of the influential 1922 Committee of backbench Tories, told The Independent: “The news at the moment is positive with a strong fall in rates of infection, accompanied by the great success of the vaccination programme, which looks set to meet its target of vaccinating the four most vulnerable groups by 15 February.
“Achieving that goal will in itself reduce the risk of mortality in this country by nearly 90 per cent. The very positive news about the benefits of vaccination in cutting rates of transmission and also keeping those vaccinated out of hospital are all powerful arguments for moving to reopen normal life in the coming weeks, starting with the huge priority of schools.”
However, a member of the PM’s Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage) said Mr Johnson was “absolutely right to be cautious” in unwinding the lockdown in the immediate future.
Prof Andrew Hayward, the director of UCL’s Institute for Epidemiology, said the UK would probably have to wait until the summer for “a significant return to normality”, with restrictions gradually phased out once the most vulnerable people in the UK have been vaccinated.
“We’re still in a very serious situation with amongst the highest coronavirus rates in the world and the number of deaths are still very high,” he told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme.
“Yes, they are going down, but we know that when we begin to release the rates will start to bounce back very quickly. It’s fantastic that we’ve vaccinated 10 million people, but there’s still a lot of vulnerable people yet to be vaccinated. It’s too early to release just yet.”
However, one expert suggested restraints could be softened sooner, allowing friends and family to meet as early as March and restaurants to reopen in the following weeks.
Paul Hunter, professor of medicine at the University of East Anglia, said he thought schools could open before the PM’s 8 March target and that social mixing should be able to start “probably not long after – if I had to bet on a time, I’d say some time in March certainly.”
Mr Johnson’s official spokesman said the recovery roadmap would set out a “gradual, phased approach that is sustainable” following a review of the evidence in the week of 15 February. He confirmed that 8 March was the earliest date being considered for schools to reopen to all pupils, adding: “As has been the case throughout, we will be guided by the science and the data.”
Latest figures showed 915 coronavirus deaths reported on 4 February, down from 1,322 the previous day. But positive tests were up by more than 1,400 to a daily total of 20,634. The seven-day total of 148725 daily tests was down more than a quarter (25.7 per cent) on the previous week.
Vaccinations reached 10,490,487 for the first dose, after passing the symbolic 10m level on Wednesday. Some 501,957 people have now received their second booster shot.
Meanwhile, Public Health England data showed coronavirus cases dropping across all regions in England and among all age groups.
PHE’s latest surveillance report found the highest rate of infection was among 30-39 year-olds, with 358.6 cases per 100,000 people in the seven days to January 31, down week-on-week from 499.5.
Among 20-29 year-olds, the rate dropped from 478.7 to 333.5, and for 40-49 year-olds from 442.5 to 316.0.
For people aged 80 and over, the rate fell from 412.0 to 284.5.
The West Midlands region is the worst hit area for infections with an overall rate of 319.9 infections per 100,000 people. This has fallen from 427.5 in the week before.