Boris Johnson faced calls to lift lockdown faster last night as Covid infections, hospital cases and deaths hit a six-month low.
Four NHS regions – covering 29million people across southern England – reported no deaths on Sunday. Just 23 fatalities were logged elsewhere.
The average daily death toll is now 63 – 95 per cent below January’s peak. It stands at the same level as late last June – shortly before the ban on indoor socialising ended following the first national lockdown.
However, customers must still wait a minimum of seven weeks before pubs, restaurants and hotels can fully reopen. Foreign holidays are also banned until at least May 17.
It came as 40 MPs, including former Cabinet minister Karen Bradley, sent the Prime Minister a letter urging him to avoid delaying the ban on travel.
The group of cross-party MPs warned that the country would not fully recover without a thriving tourism, travel and aviation industry and told the PM that foreign holidays were essential for the country’s economic rebound.
They stressed that it was ‘paramount that the restart of international travel provides the opportunity for businesses in the aviation, travel and tourism industries to begin their long journey back to recovery’.
Boris Johnson gives an update on the coronavirus Covid-19 pandemic during a virtual press conference
Passengers make their way to the departure gates at Heathrow’s Terminal 2 amid the coronavirus pandemic
Millions were able to enjoy their first real taste of freedom in months yesterday, with many taking to golf courses, swimming pools, tennis courts and gardens as the lockdown easing coincided with a mini heatwave.
At a Downing Street press conference, Mr Johnson said it was a ‘big day’ for the millions who had been unable to see friends or play sport. The Prime Minister also counselled caution and warned of an ‘uptick’ in cases as restrictions were relaxed.
A minister said the Government was taking ‘baby steps’ toward lifting the crippling lockdown.
But Steve Baker, deputy chairman of the 70-strong Covid Recovery Group of Tory MPs, said: ‘Ministers’ monomaniacal focus on Covid cases is leaving us stuck with these roadmap dates, despite the fact that the vaccine has clearly broken the link between cases, hospitalisations and deaths.
‘It is fiendishly frustrating when so many people are suffering so greatly from the restrictions.’
Rob Pitcher, chief executive of Revolution Bars, which has 70 venues, said: ‘With the data being so positive there is a real need for the timetable to be re-examined. Everything should be brought forward so that we’re getting the economy moving at the earliest, and safest, opportunity.’
Itsu food chain founder Julian Metcalfe said: ‘All the Government can do is promise the country they’ll stick to the data and the facts, and the facts say there is a lot to celebrate with the vaccine and the numbers, which are absolutely plummeting.
‘Every week makes an enormous difference to us and everybody on the high street.’
Their calls came as:
- Mr Johnson announced that a further 60million vaccine doses will be produced at sites in the UK;
- Forty MPs wrote to the PM urging him not to delay the ban on travel beyond May 17;
- Chief medical officer Chris Whitty warned grandparents not to hug grandchildren even if they have had both doses of the vaccine;
- Downing Street said the Government was ‘on track’ to continue lifting the lockdown in line with the roadmap;
- Professor Whitty stressed the importance of not mixing indoors, saying the risks of transmission were ‘massively lower’ outside;
- He also said care home staff had a ‘professional responsibility’ to get inoculated;
- The PM refused to rule out the possibility of another lockdown this winter;
- Health secretary Matt Hancock insisted ‘the door is not shut’ to families taking foreign holidays this summer;
- No 10 hinted that Britain will not donate vaccines to Ireland or other EU states until all UK adults have been offered the jab.
The next easing of restrictions is scheduled for April 12, when non-essential shops, hairdressers and gyms are allowed to reopen and pubs and restaurants can open outdoors.
Crowds of people bask in the sun at La Malagueta beach in Spain during the pandemic
The Prime Minister faced calls to lift the lockdown faster as Covid infections, hospital cases and deaths hit a six-month low. Pictured: People on the beach in Las Palmas, Spain
But it is not until May 17, that pubs and restaurants can open to customers inside with social distancing restrictions. Hotels are also shut until then.
But Mr Johnson last night again raised fears that a third wave of the virus in Europe could make its way to the UK.
He said: ‘Historically, at least there has been a time lag and then we have had a wave ourselves. That’s why I stress the importance of everybody maintaining the discipline people have shown for so long.’
Four of the seven NHS England regions – London, the South East, South West, and East of England – recorded no deaths from the virus on Sunday. The milestone provides clear evidence of the success of the UK’s vaccination programme.
With all of the most vulnerable now immunised, the number of over-65s testing positive for Covid-19 has fallen below 200 a day. And cases among over-80s are averaging just 78 a day, after topping 3,000 in early January.
People queue to enter Terminal 2 at Heathrow Airport amid the coronavirus pandemic
In London – once the centre of the epidemic – there were more than 200 deaths a day in mid-January. But on Sunday the capital recorded none, for only the second time this year.
Cases and hospitalisations have also plunged to their lowest levels since September, and doctors yesterday spoke of the ‘wonderful feeling’ as pressure on the NHS lifts. Just 4,560 Covid patients are in hospital, down from 39,249 in mid-January.
It means wards which were converted into intensive care beds can now go back to being used for routine care.
However Sir Patrick Vallance, chief scientific adviser, said caution was necessary as vaccines were not ‘100 per cent protective’.
He told the Downing Street press conference: ‘If the rates were much higher then obviously the amount of hospitalisation would be higher, which reinforces the point that the thing that we need to do is try and keep rates down and be sensible, as we unlock.’
Give us our Summer Hols!
By John Stevens, Deputy Political Editor for The Daily Mail
Millions of sun-starved Britons must be allowed to enjoy a summer holiday abroad, MPs told Boris Johnson last night.
Forty MPs wrote to the Prime Minister to warn that the country would not fully recover from the ‘devastating’ pandemic without a thriving tourism, travel and aviation industry.
Holidays abroad are banned until at least May 17, but with Europe in the grip of a third wave of coronavirus infections, there are fears ministers will extend that until August.
Passengers make their way to the departure gates at Heathrow’s Terminal 2
The Government’s global travel taskforce is due to provide its recommendations in the coming days before Mr Johnson says more about the issue next week. However, even then he may not give a definitive date for when international travel can restart.
The group of cross-party MPs told the PM that foreign holidays were essential not just for holidaymakers, but for the country’s economic rebound.
They wrote to Mr Johnson to stress that it was ‘paramount that the restart of international travel provides the opportunity for businesses in the aviation, travel and tourism industries to begin their long journey back to recovery’.
‘As an island nation, we cannot fully recover from the devastating impacts of this pandemic without a thriving aviation and travel sector,’ the MPs warned. ‘As such, we urge you to introduce measures that allow the safe restart of international travel from May 17.’
The letter was signed by 40 MPs and six peers, including former Cabinet minister Karen Bradley, ex-aviation minister Paul Maynard and transport committee chairman Huw Merriman.
Crowds of people bask in the sunshine on Bournemouth beach as temperatures begin to rise across the country
The signatories called for the Government to adopt ‘a risk-based approach’ that ‘allows for travel to low-risk nations with minimal or no restrictions’, while retaining tougher measures for destinations where there are concerns about the spread of new variants.
They want rapid testing to be introduced for international arrivals and asked that quarantine periods be kept ‘as low as possible’.
‘We also urge the Government to ensure that the cost of testing is kept under review to ensure that it does not act as a disincentive to travel,’ they added.
Henry Smith, the Tory chairman of the all-party Future of Aviation Group, said: ‘We cannot begin our long road to recovery if we keep our skies shut throughout the summer months.’
The MP, whose Crawley constituency includes Gatwick airport, added: ‘The pandemic has been disastrous for our aviation, travel and tourism sectors and the consequences of a failure to build on the progress of our vaccination programme and back a risk-based reopening of international travel will be devastating, not only to the businesses involved, but their employees, their communities and the UK economy as a whole.’
Last night, Heathrow chief executive John Holland-Kaye said: ‘The UK is ahead in the vaccine race, and when coupled with the scientific advances in testing, ministers now have the tools they need to reopen travel safely on May 17.
‘This is not just about a holiday in the sun, it’s about reuniting people with family members that they haven’t seen in over a year, and unlocking valuable trading routes like the United States which for too long have been shut.’
Mr Johnson said last night: ‘The most important thing that we’ve got to do right now as we continue to immunise great numbers of people in this country is to protect our country insofar as we can… do as much as we can to prevent the virus coming back in from abroad and new variants coming in from abroad.
‘So, the rules about what you can do, what people can do, to see their families abroad will be governed entirely by the rules that cover travel abroad and people coming from abroad.
‘At the moment, as you know, it’s still forbidden to travel. We’ll be saying a bit more on April 5 about what the global travel taskforce has come up with.
Matt Hancock said he had a ‘lot of sympathy’ for the travel industry but said the ‘most important thing’ was to protect the recovery here at home
‘There are lots of countries that are on a red list, 35 countries are on a red list, where we have very stringent measures in place for them, for people arriving from those countries.’
Tourism minister Nigel Huddleston insisted ‘caution [will be] the name of the game’ when it comes to summer holidays abroad.
‘Remember, you can have a holiday in the UK as well and I encourage people to do that and plan for that as well,’ he told Sky News. But Health Secretary Matt Hancock later said the door ‘is not shut’ on foreign holidays this summer.
Mr Hancock said he had a ‘lot of sympathy’ for the travel industry, adding: ‘We all want to get that going as soon as possible, but the most important thing is to protect the recovery here at home so people can see their loved ones and don’t have to go into lockdown again.
‘We may get to a position where if you’ve had your jab, then other countries will say: ‘You’ve got to have the jab to come in.’ And so we’ll make sure everybody can do that.’
Asked if there will be foreign holidays this summer, he said: ‘There may well be, I wouldn’t rule that out.’
ONS figures show aviation has been the worst-hit service industry, with trade down 93 per cent in the past year.