Boris Johnson is under renewed pressure to step up lockdown easing after the government revealed that the top nine groups – around 32million people – should be given jobs by the spring. Ministers had previously refused to confirm a timetable, but the Cabinet Office cited it as a reason elections in England can take place on May 6.
Senior Conservatives seized on the optimism to reiterate calls for a quick relaxation amid fears over the huge impact on education, the economy and other health issues.
Mark Harper, who chairs the Tory MP lockdown-sceptic Covid Recovery Group (CRG), said of the May date: ‘It will be almost impossible to justify having any restrictions in place at all by that point.’
Mr Johnson is set to unveil his road map out of lockdown towards the end of the month, with hopes the return of schools from March 8 can be followed by allowing mixing outdoors, with bars and restaurants freed up over the summer.
There was a barrage of other good news today, with the R number dipping below the critical level of one, research showing the AstraZeneca jab seems effective against the Kent variant, and the UK regulator saying it was not detecting significant side-effects.
However, the government has published stark modelling from Prof Neil Ferguson’s team at Imperial College. Considered by SAGE on January 14, the paper assumed that there will be a phased easing of lockdown between March and July, and warned that a ‘rapid ramp-up’ of vaccinations to ‘at least’ 3million doses a week is ‘critical to avoid exceeding national hospital capacity after the current wave’.
The government is currently maintaining around that level. But the report added: ‘This would still lead to an additional 130,800 (103,200 – 167,600) deaths between now and June 2022.’