Coronavirus cases, deaths and hospital admissions are continuing to fall rapidly, according to official figures that will pile even more pressure on Boris Johnson to ease lockdown even sooner.
Department of Health bosses today recorded 9,938 infections — down by a fifth on last week. Another 442 victims were also added to the toll, in a fall of more than 40 per cent. And hospital admissions in England plunged below 1,000 for the first time since the end of October.
Facing mounting calls from Tory MPs to bring forward the June 21 date and give millions of people their freedom before the summer solstice, the Prime Minister defended his lockdown roadmap.
The PM shrugged off demands from his own benches to ‘show urgency’ after No10 flatly ruled out accelerating the ultra-cautious timetable in the roadmap — despite Jacob Rees-Mogg saying there is ‘always flexibility’.
And ‘Professor Lockdown’ Neil Ferguson today repeated his view that it might be possible to shift the schedule up if vaccine and infection figures continue to exceed expectations.
But England’s deputy chief medical officer Jonathan Van-Tam insisted the plan was ‘appropriate’, suggesting the five-week gap between the stages of easing is needed to be sure the outbreak is not getting out of control again.
Mr Johnson ran the gauntlet of the House of Commons this afternoon at PMQs as the row rages. Sir Keir Starmer said he supported the blueprint but goaded the premier over Conservative attacks on ‘dodgy assumptions’.
The PM ducked by saying data have been put before MPs and the roadmap will set the country on a ‘cautious but irreversible journey to freedom’. Mr Johnson swiped: ‘He vacillates, we vaccinate – and we are going to get on with our agenda, cautious but irreversibly taking this country forward on a one-way road to freedom.’
A Downing Street spokesman said today: ‘The dates set out in the roadmap are the earliest any changes will take place. We are very clear they won’t come forward.’
Boris Johnson (left) faces demands from his own benches to ‘show urgency’ after No10 flatly ruled out accelerating the ultra-cautious timetable in the roadmap. Sir Keir Starmer (right) said he support the blueprint, but goaded the premier over Conservative attacks on ‘dodgy assumptions’
Deputy chief medical officer Jonathan Van-Tam insisted the plan was ‘appropriate’, suggesting the five-week gap between the stages of easing is needed to be sure the outbreak is not getting out of control again
Tories have been attacking the ‘dodgy assumptions’ behind the government’s roadmap
Leading epidemiologist Prof Ferguson has suggested the easings could be ‘accelerated’ if infections do not rise too sharply.
He underlined his view today, although he told the Telegraph that it was unlikely to be clear whether the plan can be speeded up before May. That is the time when the Tory Covid Recovery Group wants all restrictions lifted.
‘If any acceleration is possible, it is only likely to be potentially possible in May,’ Prof Ferguson said.
Tory MP Sir Desmond Swayne told MailOnline that Mr Johnson must open the door to bringing the roadmap schedule forward.
‘Where is the sense of urgency gone about limiting the damage we are doing to our economy and social life?
‘My frustration is that he said it would be data driven and then announced a series of not before dates. Those not before dates can be delayed, but there appears to be no scope to bring it forward.’
Sir Desmond said: ‘We are showing caution where we should be showing urgency. It is costing so much it is mind-boggling. ‘The number of pubs and restaurants and hotels that will go out of business before we get to the new dawn, it is too high a price to pay in my view.’
Sir Desmond said if the situation in hospitals improved it might ‘light a fire’ under the government to act faster.
‘I would think that as the statistics change… the appetite of the public will change,’ he said.
Professor Van-Tam strongly backed the timetable set out in the roadmap today.
‘The Government has laid out a pretty careful and pretty painstakingly cautious – but I think appropriate – road map to get us from where we are now to get us in stages – measured, careful stages – to where we want to be in the summer,’ he told Sky News.
He said the road map included five weeks between stages to measure the impact of relaxations due to the lag from people getting infected to needing hospital treatment.
‘If, for example, you react too quickly and say ‘oh, it’s all going marvellously, look, infection rates are coming down’ and you don’t wait for that lag to see what the impact is on hospitalisations and deaths, then you’re always at risk of getting it wrong and going too fast.
Former chief whip Mark Harper, head of the 70-strong Covid Recovery Group of sceptical MPs, has complained that the models being used by the government are ‘flawed’
‘And we factored all of that in these carefully measured steps.’
Prof Van-Tam said he understood people’s frustrations with the pace of the road map.
He added: ‘I completely get it, I am desperate for the football to be back, but actually I would rather do this once and get it right and not have to make any U-turns or backtracking, I would rather just go slowly and steadily and get there in one go.’
Mr Johnson has dismissed the idea on a visit to a school in South London, saying: ‘Some people will say we’re going to be going too fast, some people will say we’re going too slow.’
The premier also refused to guarantee that all restrictions will definitely be lifted by June 21 as scheduled, but insisted he was ‘hopeful’ it can happen.
Tories and business have been voicing disquiet about the ultra-cautious approach being taken by ministers, even though the vaccination drive has been surging ahead.
Schools will return on March 8, but there will be almost no further loosening of the draconian curbs before Easter. There will be a five week gap between each of the four main stages of the plan, with scientists having won the argument in government that time is needed to assess the impact.
The PM has been boosted by snap polls showing the public largely backs his stance, with 46 per cent telling YouGov it is about right – and around a fifth suggesting it is too fast.
Former chief whip Mark Harper, head of the 70-strong Covid Recovery Group of sceptical MPs, has complained that the models being used by the government are ‘flawed’.
He said ‘understating’ the reach of the vaccine rollout had resulted in the PM coming up with a plan that delays reopening the country two months longer than necessary.