Boris Johnson has delivered a cautious message on the government’s plan for England to emerge from lockdown in mid-February, saying the timetable was subject to “lots of caveats, lot of ifs”.
At a Downing Street press conference where Johnson said the country had vaccinated almost a quarter of over-80s, both the prime minister and his scientific and medical advisers stressed the vaccine did not automatically spell a return to normal life by the spring.
Chris Whitty, the chief medical officer for England, said that even with the vaccine, some restrictions might still need to be in place next winter, and that coronavirus will not disappear “in a single bound”.
Johnson, who throughout much of the pandemic has been the government’s main voice of optimism, was notably wary. He refused to guarantee that children would be fully back at school before the summer, instead calling this a “fundamental hope”.
Announcing that 1.3 million people across the UK had been vaccinated, Johnson pledged there would soon be daily updates on the vaccination figures but said there would be “long weeks ahead and we must persevere with these restrictions”.
The vaccination data came with bleak infection figures revealing there were now an estimated 1 million people infected with Covid-19 in England, or one in 50 people. The estimate from the Office for National Statistics found 2% of the UK population had the virus between 27 December and 2 January.
Unveiling England’s third national lockdown on Monday, Johnson had said his aim was to vaccinate more than 13 million older or more clinically vulnerable people by mid-February, allowing restrictions to be eased.
But challenged on this timetable, Johnson conceded that it “depends on a number of things”.
He said: “Provided we don’t learn anything new about the virus that we don’t yet understand, there’s not some new mutation that we haven’t currently bargained for; provided the vaccine rollout goes according to to plan; provided the vaccine is as efficacious as we think it is; but above all, provided that everybody follows the guidance now.” He added: “I wouldn’t put it any stronger than that.”
Asked about the plan, Whitty called it “realistic but not easy”, and told people to brace for potential restrictions for months to come.
Whitty said risk levels from Covid would allow for measures to be “lifted by degrees possibly at different rates in different parts of the country”.
“We’ll then get over time to a point where people say this level of risk is something society is prepared to tolerate and lift right down to almost no restrictions at all,” he said. “We might have to bring in a few in next winter for example, that’s possible, because winter will benefit the virus.”
In his opening remarks, Johnson said the significance of the vaccination programme’s advances should not be underestimated and it was right to prioritise the elderly, even over healthcare workers.
“And when you consider that the average age of Covid fatalities is in the 80s, you can see the importance of what we have already achieved. And that is why I believe that the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation was right to draw up a programme aimed at saving the most lives the fastest.”
Defending his decision to keep most schools open until Monday night, Johnson said he had hoped to see evidence that tier 4 measures were working to bring the infection rate down.
“The tier 4 measures were something that we wanted to evaluate and over the course of the the days leading up to Sunday … we were hoping that we would start to see some impact and that we would be able to keep schools open, because keeping schools open is an absolute priority for this country.
“It was clear that we’ve got to a situation where tier 4 on its own couldn’t be relied upon to get the virus under control.”