The government today revealed it expects to have vaccinated all over-50s before May 6 as Boris Johnson plots a route to freedom.
The Cabinet Office disclosed the schedule as it confirmed that elections in England will take place on that date – citing the fact that the top nine groups will have received jabs as a reason it can ‘go ahead with these polls with confidence’.
Vaccines minister Nadhim Zahawi repeatedly refused to give a timetable for completing the first phase of the rollout – totalling 32million people – in interviews yesterday.
But the government said today: ‘The UK’s vaccination programme is planned to have reached all nine priority cohorts by May, meaning that the Government can commit to go ahead with these polls with confidence – and maintain the choice for voters between voting in person or remotely.’
However, the news is likely to fuel pressure from Tories to speed up easing of lockdown. The head of the 70-strong Covid Recovery Group has called for restrictions to be lifted altogether once all over-50s have been offered doses.
As optimism rises about the vaccination programme, the PM is preparing to bring back outdoor mixing and sport once children are back in school from March 8, with hopes of a ‘quick return to normal’ in April and May.
One Whitehall source said: ‘If the vaccine programme goes the way we think it will go, then you will start to see quite a quick return to normal in April and May.’
According to the Times, both team and solo sports could be given the green light to resume within weeks of March 8 – the day pupils are supposed to go back to the classroom.
Outdoor socialising could also be allowed around the same time, reflecting scientific consensus that coronavirus finds it harder to spread in the fresh air.
The Prime Minister’s blueprint – due to be unveiled formally on February 22 – will also earmark dates for non-essential shops and pubs, which have been shut since the third national lockdown came into force in January, to finally reopen.
Mr Johnson is also understood to be eager to overhaul complex rules that had required pub-goers in some areas to order a ‘substantial meal’ with alcohol, drawing scorn when ministers were forced to clarify that a scotch egg counted.
Boris Johnson is set to first ease restrictions on outdoor sport and socialising when lockdown lifts, sources claimed last night
Ministers are believed to be drawing up ‘tentative’ plans to gently relax the rules on open-air gatherings (stock image of exercise) in the spring, when schools reopen. Right: A key worker child takes a Covid test at Oasis Academy in Coulsdon, Surrey
Rishi Sunak to help plot Government’s road map out of lockdown
Rishi Sunak has been drafted in to help plot the route out of lockdown in an effort to ease tension between the Treasury and Downing Street over the issue.
Government sources revealed that, unlike in the first lockdown, Treasury officials have been put in the unit drawing up a ‘road map’ for easing restrictions which will be published on February 22.
The arrangement was agreed at a dinner in Downing Street last month when Boris Johnson and the Chancellor discussed the need to set out the plans. Both are said to have agreed on the importance of ensuring this lockdown is the last.
Last year the Government was accused of ignoring the economic consequences when taking decisions on lockdown. Mr Sunak was reported to have pushed for a faster reopening to help businesses ravaged by months of enforced closure.
‘What has changed this time is that the Treasury is completely integrated,’ the source said. The revelations came as the Treasury played down reports Mr Sunak is frustrated by the vague timetable for ending restrictions crippling the economy.
The Daily Telegraph had reported the Chancellor had accused scientists of ‘moving the goalposts’ over the threshold for easing restrictions.
The plans to prioritise open-air activities emerged as:
- The average daily vaccination rate has risen to 430,532 in the last seven days, equal to more than three million jabs a week;
- A study said the UK could reach herd immunity by July;
- Some ministers are concerned that the PM’s plan to ease restrictions on a national basis would slow Britain’s escape from lockdown;
- The Treasury was forced to deny reports that Rishi Sunak is growing frustrated with the slow pace of the exit;
- Ministers faced calls to ‘think again’ about the decision to keep schools closed until March 8 after Scotland said it would reopen them on February 22;
- A new NHS hospital could be named after Captain Sir Tom Moore;
- European Commission chief Ursula von der Leyen came under mounting pressure over the EU’s faltering vaccine rollout, with Germany’s vice-chancellor reportedly calling her efforts ‘really s***’;
- It emerged that passengers on public transport in London could be required to wear medical grade masks.
Talk has turned to the ending of lockdown after Professor Chris Whitty confirmed that the UK is past the peak of this second wave of the pandemic.
A further 915 deaths and 20,634 positive tests were reported yesterday – both counts were down by more than a quarter week-on-week.
More than 10million people have also now been vaccinated, with the speed of jabs going into arms accelerating.
Hawkish Tory MPs have begun calling for a battle plan to ensure lockdown can be completely banished by the summer, after Mr Johnson promised to unveil a roadmap on February 22.
Former Conservative chief whip Mark Harper, who leads the 70-strong Covid Research Group, said the vaccine rollout is progressing to the point where ‘by the time you get to the end of May you should be in a position to get rid of restrictions completely’.
But health chiefs are warning that suddenly springing off restrictions could jeopardise efforts to beat back the virus.
NHS Providers chief executive Chris Hopson yesterday urged ministers to adopt a ‘cautious, evidence-based’ approach.
Although the number of patients in ICU is coming down ‘very slowly’, he said there were still 26,000 people fighting Covid-19 in hospitals – 40 per cent more than the peak of the first wave.
And that stretched capacity has forced frontline staff to work ‘at fever pitch intensity’, leaving them ‘deeply exhausted’ and ‘fatigued’.
Ministers plan ‘vaccine passports’ in boost for summer holidays
Ministers are believed to be thrashing out plans for ‘vaccine passports’.
The Times reports that documents could be provided for British holidaymakers to prove they have been inoculated against coronavirus.
It comes after several European countries including Greece, Spain, Malta and Denmark have signalled support for such a plan.
The Foreign Office, the Department for Transport and The Department for Health and Social Care are said to be working on a range of measures to enable a return to foreign travel – including the certificates to prove tourists have received a jab.
Cycles of lockdown has largely put paid to overseas leisure trips
But Government officials are reportedly in talks with Athens about the prospect of tourists heading to Greece this summer.
Mr Johnson this week acknowledged that infection rates remained ‘alarmingly high’ and suggested his Government would be taking baby steps.
It is simultaneously trying to crack down on new cases from overseas and last night fleshed out details for the scheme to force arrivals to do 11 nights quarantine in hotels – which will launch on February 15, three weeks after it was announced.
Retired Royal Marine general Sir Gordon Messenger, a former vice chief of defence staff who led a mass community testing operation in Liverpool last year, has been drafted in to oversee the delayed project.
Last night, it was claimed the Government was racing to reserve 28,000 hotel rooms across the UK in a bid to launch the scheme.
Documents seen by the Daily Telegraph suggested ministers had asked hotel bosses to be ready to accommodate 1,425 passengers a day by February 15.
The scheme will see returning passengers quarantined in hotels for 11 nights at a cost of up to £800 per person.
Labour said the measures will come nearly two months after the South African Covid strain was discovered in the UK.
Shadow home secretary Nick Thomas-Symonds said: ‘We are in a race against time to protect our borders against new Covid strains … as ever with this Government, it is too little, too late.’
And while ministers were imposing a new squeeze at the border, they are also reportedly drawing up plans for ‘vaccine passports’ in a boost for summer holidays.
The Times reports that documents could be provided for tourists to prove they have been inoculated against coronavirus.
It comes after several European countries including Greece, Spain, Malta and Denmark have signalled support for such a plan.
The Foreign Office, the Department for Transport and The Department for Health and Social Care working on a range of measures to enable a return to foreign travel – including certificates to prove tourists have received a jab.
Proof the peak HAS passed: Daily deaths drop to 915 and cases to 20,634 – down 30% from last week – as all but THREE local authorities in England see Covid infections fall and pressure on NHS intensive care units finally eases
By Connor Boyd, assistant health editor for MailOnline
More proof that Britain has passed the peak of the second wave of coronavirus emerged yesterday as daily deaths and cases continued to fall and pressure on intensive care units finally started to ease.
Department of Health officials recorded another 915 Covid victims — including a seven-year-old — and 20,634 positive tests. Both daily counts were down by more than a quarter week-on-week.
Separate Public Health England figures showed all but three local authorities saw coronavirus infections drop last week, plummeting in London, the South East and other areas that were ravaged before Christmas. Cases in care homes fell by a third, data also showed.
The latest Test and Trace report today claimed positive Covid tests plunged by 41 per cent in the last fortnight, in another sign the crisis is firmly in retreat.
The latest NHS Test and Trace report published today showed coronavirus infections fell by 40 per cent in the last two weeks, in another sign the crisis is firmly in retreat. The programme reported 196,257 positive tests in the week up to January 27, down from 333,802 in the seven days to January 13. Infections hit a record-high 389,946 in the week ending January 13
Encouraging figures show the number of positive tests recorded in English care homes dropped by more than a third last week, falling from 504 to 321. This, combined with the fact every eligible care home resident has now been vaccinated, suggest officials are finally getting a grip on the resurgence of the virus in the sector
Meanwhile, NHS England statistics showed there were 5,283 patients in ICUs across the country on the last day of January, down slightly on the previous week when there were 5,446 beds in use.
It’s the first time ICU capacity has eased since the highly-infectious Kent Covid variant started to spiral out of control in December.
All key metrics now indicate the darkest days of the winter crisis are behind us, with the number of Covid hospital patients in general beds dropping to its lowest level for a month and in every region.
However a leading health figure issued a sobering reminder that the NHS is still at ‘full stretch’ and that staff are ‘deeply exhausted’ after working at ‘fever pitch intensity’ for weeks.
NHS Providers chief executive Chris Hopson said ICU numbers are coming down ‘very slowly’, adding that there are still 26,000 Covid-19 patients in hospitals – 40 per cent more than the peak in the first phase last April.
Despite all figures trending in the right direction, there is mounting anger over ‘goalpost shifting’ on lockdown as ministers and SAGE scientists suggested case numbers need to come down further before any ‘significant’ easing, shifting away from No10’s original ‘protect the NHS, save lives’ mantra.
A 70-strong group of lockdown-sceptic Tories in the CRG block demanded Boris Johnson lifts restrictions altogether by the summer. The Prime Minister is facing an angry backlash and claims he is being ‘beaten up by scientists’.
Vaccines minister Nadhim Zahawi appeared to indicate that the government is looking at the top nine risk categories – around 32million people – as the trigger point for a widespread downgrading of measures.
So far the PM has only said that he will unveil a route map out of lockdown on February 22, after the first four most vulnerable groups have been covered.
There are claims that Chancellor Rishi Sunak is again leading calls within Cabinet for lockdown to be eased as early as possible – in contrast to the more cautious tone adopted by Mr Johnson recently.
Public Health England data published yesterday revealed 146 out of 149 areas (98 per cent) recorded a drop in weekly positive tests in the seven days to January 31, with cases falling in all English regions for the second week running.
Infection rates plunged by more than 33 per cent in a third of local authorities and fell sharply by over 25 per cent in another 35 places. Cases are also down in every age group.
Encouraging figures also show the number of suspected outbreaks in English care homes dropped by more than a third last week, falling from 504 to 321.
This, combined with the fact 80 per cent of care home residents have now been vaccinated, suggest officials are finally getting a grip on the resurgence of the virus in the sector.
Latest NHS England data published today showed there were 5,283 patients in ICUs across the country on the last day of January, down slightly on the previous week, when there were 5,446 beds in use. It is significant because it marks the first time ICU capacity has eased since the highly-infectious Kent Covid variant started to spiral out of control in December
The only three areas in England to see rises in the past week were Torbay, where it increased by 0.9 per cent to 169 per 100,000, Gateshead in Tyne and Wear, where the rate climbed 3.9 per cent to 210 and in Rutland where there was an uniquely large rise. The East Midlands county recorded a 33 per cent increase, with the rate now 230 per 100,000.
It is thought that a Covid outbreak in HMP Stocken in Stretton could be partly to blame. It has not been confirmed how many have tested positive for the coronavirus. The category C men’s prison has around 950 inmates.
Despite the country heading in the right direction, the NHS figures show 23 trusts across England did not have a single spare intensive care bed on January 31.
These included University Hospitals Birmingham NHS Foundation Trust, one of the largest trusts in England, along with Sandwell & West Birmingham Hospitals NHS Trust.
But the problem was not confined to the Midlands, as major trusts all over the country — including in Merseyside, London, Derbyshire and the home counties — also reported having no spare critical care capacity.
Even hospitals in the South West, which had managed to avoid the worst of the pandemic throughout 2020, were seeing their ICUs pushed to the brink, with Portsmouth Hospitals University National Health Service Trust and the Royal Cornwall Hospitals NHS Trust recording 100 per cent occupancy.
Despite lockdown starting to bring Britain’s winter wave under control, ICUs nationally are still almost 70 per cent busier than they have been at any time over the past five years.
For comparison, there were 3,034 critically-ill patients at the same time last winter, and the average over the last four years stood at 3,183.