Government scientific adviser Andrew Hayward has suggested there could be a “significant return to normality” by the summer with restrictions gradually phased out once the most vulnerable people in the UK have been vaccinated.
The director of UCL’s Institute for Epidemiology, however, stressed that Boris Johnson was “absolutely right to be cautious” in unwinding the lockdown in the immediate future as he faces pressure from Conservative backbenchers over the return of schools.
“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.”
But Mr Hayward — a member of the government Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage) — said that once the most vulnerable are vaccinated, including those over 50 and those with chronic illnesses, “then yes I think we can see a significant return to normality".
“In addition to the fact that coronavirus is a seasonal disease, I think will make a big difference and allow us to open up,” he added. “I think what we’ll see is a phased opening up as the vaccination levels increase and then we’ll be more or less back to normal for the summer I would imagine.”
His comments came after the prime minister cautioned that while there were “signs of hope”, levels of infection remained “alarmingly high”.
Professor Chris Whitty, the chief medical officer in England, also told the No 10 coronavirus press conference on Wednesday that the country is “past the peak” of the second wave of coronavirus, but warned the virus could still surge again if restrictions are lifted too soon.
In a separate interview, Nadhim Zahawi, the minister responsible for the vaccine rollout, said the prime minister will set out a roadmap on 22 February for a gradual reopening of the economy beginning with the potential reopening of some schools on 8 March.
However, he declined to give a date for when the all nine groups in the priority list will have received their vaccine, saying the government’s efforts were concentrated on the 15 million jabs target by 15 February for priority groups 5-9.
"But you can do the maths. We did 600,000 in a single day - the deployment infrastructure that we've built can do as much vaccines as we get supply, so the limiting factor will be vaccine supply. You can see that in the next 10 or so days, we've got to do another almost touching five million and so if we keep that rate up we will very quickly go down the list of the top nine."
Pressed on whether that meant it would take another 35 days from 15 February to have jabbed all 31 million people in the first nine cohorts, Mr Zahawi replied: "That assumes the supply, so I don't want to commit to a date without going through it with a very fine tooth comb with the whole team, because our limiting factor is the supply of vaccines ultimately.
"With any manufacturing process, especially one that is new, there are challenges around that, as we've seen in Europe and as we saw in the early days in the UK as well."
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