The government has “no plans” to bring forward the earliest date for the end of lockdown from 21 June, despite “hugely encouraging” data on Covid transmission, Downing Street has said.
Boris Johnson is coming under pressure to bring forward the end-date for remaining restrictions following the publication of data showing the impact of coronavirus falling to the levels of last summer in the UK.
The most recent daily figures, released on Monday, showed just one death from Covid-19 and 1,649 positive tests. The latest hospitalisation figures show 160 patients admitted on 27 April and 994 over the previous week across the whole country.
Meanwhile, a total of more than 50 million vaccinations have been administered.
And there has been little sign of the spike in cases after each easing in restrictions predicted by the prime minister’s Sage scientific advisory group when he first set out his roadmap to normality in February.
An announcement is expected next Monday that the next step will go ahead on 17 May, with pubs and restaurants allowed to serve indoors and cinemas and hotels reopening. A “green list” of countries to which international travel can resume from the same date is expected on Friday.
But at least seven weeks remain before the final removal of restrictions on 21 June at the earliest, allowing nightclubs to open and ending limits on the size of weddings, with ministers hinting that mask-wearing and social distancing may continue beyond that point.
Following calls from Tory MPs for Mr Johnson to consider bringing forward his plans, the prime minister’s official spokesperson told reporters: “We have not plans to deviate from the approach set out in the roadmap.”
Figures on cases, hospitalisations and deaths are “in line with expectations, which is hugely encouraging”, said the spokesperson.
But he added: “That emphasises the need to adhere to the roadmap, which provides the certainty which the public and businesses have been asking for.”
And he said: “We continue to believe that the dates set out in the roadmap are the right ones.”
The Conservative MP for Poole, Sir Robert Syms, said: “Infections, hospitalisations and deaths have fallen quite rapidly and there doesn’t seem to be any evidence that any of the unlocking has caused any sort of spike.
“It didn’t happen when schools reopened and hasn’t as a result of shops reopening. We need to push the government to get on with it. A lot of normal life could be returned.”
Professor Neil Ferguson, from Imperial College London, whose modelling work informs Government scientists, said he was “feeling fairly optimistic that we will be not completely back to normal, but something which feels a lot more normal by the summer”.
Concerns about the possibility of a resurgence of coronavirus in the UK in late summer and early autumn were “diminishing” in the light of new data showing the effect of vaccines on transmission of the virus, he said.
But there remains risk that new Covid variants with resistance to vaccines could lead to a “very major third wave” in the autumn, he warned.
It was therefore “essential we roll out booster doses, which can protect against that, as soon as we’ve basically finished vaccinating the adult population, which should finish by the summer,” Prof Ferguson told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme.
Commenting on the prime minister’s view that the one-metre plus rule on social distancing could be scrapped in June, Prof Ferguson said it was a political judgment on how much infection was acceptable, given deaths had been driven down.
He said “we do expect transmission and, to some extent hospitalisations and deaths, to tick up in late summer if we completely go back to normal, but at a much lower level than we saw, for instance, back in December and January”.
“So it’s obviously a political judgment as to what is acceptable in terms of number of infections, but we don’t see any prospect of, for instance, the NHS being overwhelmed – with the one caveat around variants I’ve already mentioned – so it’s always a matter of judgment.”
He said there would need to be “much higher levels of infection in society in order to risk overwhelming the NHS and we think that’s actually unlikely to happen unless a variant comes along which resets that relationship again.”
Sage member Professor Stephen Reicher of the University of St Andrews said the public should take the PM’s suggestion that social distancing could be scrapped in June with a “little bit of a pinch of salt”.
He told BBC Breakfast that “things can change very rapidly”, adding: “The real important issue is this – if we take this as a signal that things are all over, if we relax and if we mix now, the paradox is we will push up the infections and will make it less likely that we can relax on 21 June.”
And Prof Reicher warned: “Even after restrictions go, it makes sense to have sensible and cautious precautions; not in a way that limit our everyday lives, not in a way that stops us seeing people or hugging people, but just realising, for instance, that on the whole, we are safer outside, don’t sit too close to people, open the windows.”
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