And the 65 more deaths caused by Covid-19 is the lowest number since October 12 and marks a drop of 38 per cent on last Monday. Cases fell by 14 per cent in a week.
The promising numbers come as Boris Johnson today announced the ‘first step on the roadmap’, hailing it as a ‘big day’, with schools reopening and indoor care home visits now permitted in England, but faced more pressure from anti-lockdown MPs.
Dr Jenny Harries, Public Health England’s deputy chief medical officer, said in a Downing Street press conference today that the data show a ‘pleasing picture’ and the Covid Recovery Group of Tory MPs said it would look ‘odd’ if the country were still in lockdown even as cases and deaths head close to zero.
Batting away zealous calls to for No 10 to speed up the route back to normality, however, Dr Harries said infection rates across the UK were now back to where they were in September but warned: ‘This is the level at which a new wave could easily take off again from.’
And she said there is ‘still a substantial strain on the NHS, and not one we can afford to rise from again’.
Mr Johnson said he was embracing a ‘big budget of risk’ taking today’s step of the wholesale reopening of schools, admitting it was inevitable that letting children back into classrooms would cause cases to rise, and refused to budge on his ‘cautious but irreversible’ plans.
Almost 22.4million people have been vaccinated with at least one dose of a Covid jab, with 164,143 more immunised yesterday, along with 20,241 second doses.
Dr Harries said the vaccination programme was making ‘extremely fast progress’ but said officials were still waiting to see concrete evidence of national hospital admission rates staying down as a result of the jabs.
Boris Johnson held a press conference today to hail the ‘first step on the roadmap’ as schools across England reopened, indoor care home visits were brought back and people allowed to socialise outdoors in pairs
Today marks the first loosening of lockdown rules in three months, with children returning to school classrooms across England.
Ministers have insisted this marks the end of the home-schooling era, with the PM insisting this route out of lockdown will be ‘cautious but irreversible’.
But he is resisting calls for rules to be relaxed sooner.
FRIENDS AND FAMILY REUNITE ON DAY ONE OF UNLOCKING
Friends and family members reunited in parks and town centres across England today for the first time in months after the first easing of lockdown restrictions came into place this morning.
People were seen enjoying chats and coffees in Hyde Park, central London while friends braved the cold weather to sit down for a picnic in a park in Leeds.
Today marks the start of England’s great unlocking, with two friends allowed to meet outside socially, families allowed to see loved ones in care homes and schools welcoming back pupils.
Boris Johnson said he hoped the tentative softening of restrictions marked a ‘big step’ on his ‘road map to freedom’ – a plan which could see all Covid measures lifted by June 21.
As well as pupils returning to classrooms for the first time in at least two months, the rules around meeting with a person from another household outdoors will be loosened to permit recreation and not just exercise.
While the ‘stay at home’ message will remain in place, it means people can leave home to meet one other person for a coffee or picnic.
The Prime Minister told The Telegraph that even though it was ‘only a small relaxation of the rules’, this week’s changes would bring ‘joy and relief’ to families after months of ‘tough restrictions’.
Sounding worried that outbreaks are surging again in Europe – a development that was a precursor to the UK’s second wave – Mr Johnson said that infections are still higher than they were before restrictions came in last year.
The Covid Recovery Group, a band of anti-lockdown Tory MPs, is still demanding that the Government release measures sooner, said it would be ‘odd’ if England is still in lockdown when coronavirus cases and deaths get close to zero.
‘With the speed that we’re seeing deaths, hospitalisations and infections drop, I think when we get to the end of April it’s going to look a bit odd that the Government’s roadmap still has another two months nearly to run,’ the group’s chief Mark Harper told BBC Radio 4’s Westminster Hour.
‘And I think if it believes in data not dates, as the data improves the Government should bring forward the roadmap rather than be tied to the dates it’s already set out.’
Tory ex-minister David Jones told MailOnline: ‘At the moment it is pretty clear we are getting on top of the virus.
‘The vaccination programme is remarkably good… I am not a scientist but I would have thought that the government must star to think about an accelerated timetable of the restrictions that we have got at the moment.’
Hitting back at pressure from these MPs, Mr Johnson said today: ‘On the acceleration of the roadmap… people have asked us to do this many times and, of course, I understand the urgency people feel, but we have to be driven by the data – we have to look at the rates of infection.
‘Don’t forget they’re still very high by the standards of last year, we still have thousands of people in hospital with Covid. And we’ve seen, alas, in other European countries the curve is going up again.
‘And we remember quite frankly – every time we’ve seen those upwards curves in our friends and neighbours – that it’s not too long after that that we see an increase in this country as well.
‘And so we’ve just got to remain prudent and the whole point of this roadmap is that it’s intended to be cautious but irreversible. And we think we can do that because of the success of the vaccine rollout.
‘But I think people would really trade some urgency and some haste in favour of security and certainty about these dates we’ve set out – April the 12th, May the 17th and so on.’
Pupils and teachers across the country begin testing as they return under the easing of lockdown restrictions. Pictured: Erin Horn looking in a mirror while taking a lateral flow test as children arrive at Outwood Academy in Doncaster in Yorkshire
Leeds friends Helen and Victoria meet in the city’s Springhead Park for a catch-up with their children Steph and Eli and Primrose
BACK-TO-SCHOOL SWAB TESTING BEGINS
Millions of school pupils have returned to classrooms after two months of home-learning as phase one of Boris Johnson’s ‘one-way road to freedom’ begins today.
Many secondary schools have implemented a phased return as students from different year groups begin Covid testing as well as following a number of other conditions brought in to allow their safe return.
Boris Johnson said that although it is ‘only a small relaxation of the rules’, the changes will bring ‘joy and relief’ to families after months of ‘tough restrictions’.
The Prime Minister took to Twitter to welcome the first milestone out of lockdown, writing: ‘I want to thank teachers, parents, guardians and carers for the work you have done to keep kids learning throughout the pandemic.
‘Getting all schools back has been our priority and the first step of our roadmap back to normality.’
Teachers have described their ‘immense relief tied to a little apprehension’ at students head back – amid chaos over non-compulsory testing schemes and fears over lax mask wearing.
Among the most immediate concerns for secondary schools will be testing every pupil twice in the first two weeks of term, before encouraging a shift to testing themselves at home.
Meanwhile, students who appear positive for coronavirus in rapid home tests will receive a subsequent test that could allow them to return to class, No 10 has confirmed this afternoon after a minister sparked confusion.
The clarification came after children’s minister Vicky Ford suggested there would be no PCR tests at all.
The first three tests for secondary and college students will take place under supervision at their places of education, before being taken twice weekly at home.
All secondary pupils are to be regularly tested – which involves swabbing the nose and throat – to try to avoid schools becoming ‘vectors of transmission’. But problems with getting consent may threaten the plans.
One head teacher in Halifax has said only a quarter of parents had agreed for their children to be tested, while in Tower Hamlets, east London, a school has reported that the ‘vast majority’ have opted out.
He added: ‘I agree that there has been some encouraging signs [in the data] but the whole point is last summer, we had the disease down to levels down to much below where it is today, and we saw what happened with the spike.
‘I think it’s fantastic that the vaccine rollout is proving so successful, but don’t forget there is a big budget of risk in opening schools in the way we are today, that’s just inevitable.
‘We think it’s manageable, we think it’s right, we think we’re prudent to be doing what we are.
‘As I say I think the biggest risk is not opening schools… but we’ll continue to take a cautious and prudent approach because I think that is really what British business would really rather see – a cautious and irreversible approach rather than a hasty approach that we have to reverse.’
While the ‘stay at home’ message will remain in place, today’s rule changes mean people can leave home to meet one other person for a coffee or picnic.
Mr Johnson told the Telegraph that even though it was ‘only a small relaxation of the rules’, this week’s changes would bring ‘joy and relief’ to families after months of ‘tough restrictions’.
Asked yesterday about the risks involved with reopening more than 20,000 schools, echoed the warnings of education experts that more damage was being done to pupils by keeping them at home than having them return to in-person lessons.
‘I think the risk is actually in not going back to school tomorrow given all the suffering, all the loss of learning we have seen,’ he said on a visit to a north London vaccination centre.
It comes after Amanda Spielman, England’s chief schools inspector, expressed concern about eating disorders and self-harming among children after she said pupils endured ‘boredom, loneliness, misery and anxiety’ during England’s third lockdown.
Education Secretary Gavin Williamson said he was looking at proposals that included a five-term academic year, a shorter summer holiday and longer school days to help pupils catch up on lost learning during the pandemic in ‘transformative’ measures not seen since the Second World War.
But Ofsted chief Ms Spielman, asked on Sky News’ Sophy Ridge On Sunday for her opinion, said such ideas had fallen by the wayside in the past and that any proposals should have the support of parents.
‘I think a number of schools have experimented over the last couple of decades with things like five-term years and I don’t think many of those have persisted,’ she said.
Labour is calling for catch-up breakfast clubs before the school day starts, with leader Sir Keir Starmer and his shadow education secretary Kate Green due to argue during a visit to a school in east London on Monday that the concept would allow for both extra socialising and learning.
The party said its analysis of Government data suggested children have each lost an average of 109 face-to-face school days since the first lockdown in March 2020.