BorisJohnson has promised there will be no return to lockdown after England emerges from the current round of restrictions, declaring that next weeks roadmap to recovery will set out cautious but irreversible steps back to normal life.
But the prime minister resisted Conservative backbench calls for firm deadlines to reopen shops, pubs and restaurants, saying that the 22 February document will offer only dates for the earliest possible relaxation of controls.
Urging Britons to be optimistic but also patient, Mr Johnson told a Downing Street press conference: I hope there isnt that much longer to go now... I want this lockdown to be the last.
On a visit to a vaccination centre in southeast London earlier in the day, the PM sent clear signals that easing of restrictions will be slower than demanded by backbench critics, in the hope of avoiding a damaging return to lockdown.
He is coming under growing pressure from backbench Tories to restart the economy, with the Covid Recovery Group saying there will be no justification for unnecessary restrictions after over-50s get the jab in April.
But he insisted: Weve got to be very prudent. What we want to see is progress that is cautious but irreversible and I think thats what the public and people up and down the country will want to see.
The prime minister confirmed his 8 March target for reopening schools and said he was increasingly confident and optimistic about the possibility for lifting other restrictions even suggesting that rapid-turnaround tests could be used to allow the return of nightclubs and theatres.
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He hailed the completion of the first phase of vaccinations, covering over-70s, health and care workers and people with serious health conditions, as an unprecedented national achievement and said that 1 million over-65s were now receiving their invitations for a jab.
But he admitted he could offer no cast-iron guarantees that there would not be further setbacks, and said he wont hesitate to delay easements if infection rates rise.
NHS England chief executive Sir Simon Stevens said the end of April had been set as the target to vaccinate the top nine priority groups, including all over-50s, but added that if vaccine supplies increase we think we can go faster.
Estimating that the next 10-11 weeks could see double the number of jabs as in the last 10-11 weeks including many second doses for those in the first wave of vaccinations he told the prime minister: Give us the tools the vaccines and we will finish the job.
Top medics and scientists will now be involved with senior ministers including Mr Johnson, health secretary Matt Hancock, chancellor Rishi Sunak and Cabinet Office minister Michael Gove in a series of meetings over the coming days to thrash out Mondays blueprint for recovery.
Sources within government insisted that vital data on the effect of the vaccines on hospitalisations, deaths and transmission of the virus were still coming in, and stressed that no final decisions have been made. A final decision on the way forward could come as late as the weekend.
Mr Johnson himself said that reports suggesting that social contact curbs could be relaxed next month, shops reopened within weeks and self-catering holidays permitted by Easter should be taken with a pinch of salt.
When I explain what we are going to do, you will hear it directly from me, he promised.
The PMs promise of an irreversible move away from restrictions sparked alarm among public health experts, who warned that Covid-19 could still flare up even if over-50s are vaccinated as planned.
Latest data showed that the 9,765 postive tests reported on Monday remain higher than in September, while more people are in hospital than at the peak of the first wave last April. Some 230 deaths were reported on Monday, with the seven-day total down more than 26 per cent on the previous week.
Public health professor Gabriel Scally, of Bristol University, told The Independent that the UK remains far from the nirvana of being able to relax its guard.
Opening up retail and hospitality risked a spike in transmission among non-vaccinated groups, increasing the likelihood of dangerous new variants emerging, he warned, pointing to reports of seven worrisome mutations detected in the US in recent days.
A man walks down a deserted Camden High Street
Photos Angela Christofilou
Goodge Street Station is one of the many stations closed to help reduce the spread
An empty street in the heart of Chinatown
People in masks in Chinatown a day after the lockdown
A near-empty Piccadilly Circus during the first week of lockdown
Sonja, my neighbour, who I photographed while taking a short walk. It was nice to briefly chat even from a distance
A couple sit on the empty steps of the statue Eros in Piccadilly Circus
Making sure I stay two-meters apart DArblay Street, Soho
A mannequin behind a shop window. UK stores have closed until further notice
A notice displayed on a shop window in Camden
As part of the lockdown, all non-essential shops have been ordered to close.Image from Camden High Street
A skateboarder wearing a mask utilises his exercise allowance in the Camden area
Communities have been coming together in a time of need
A woman stands alone in a deserted Oxford Street. Up until a few weeks ago, on average, half a million people visited the street per day
A couple walk hand in hand down a street in Soho, a day before the stricter lockdown was announced
During the first week of March, shoppers focused on stockpiling necessities ahead of a countrywide lockdown
Many supermarkers are operating a queuing system to make sure only a limited amount of customers are allowed in at anyone time
Stay Safe Curzon cinemas are temporarily closed under the new measures
Pubs, restaurants and bars were ordered to shut as part of the lockdown
There are fears that coronavirus could lead to permanent closure of struggling shops
Camden Town is eerily silent on a normal working day
Shops and supermarkets ran out of hand sanitisers in the first week of the lockdown. As we approach the end of the second week most shops now have started to stock up
Empty streets around Soho
A noticeboard on Camden High Street urges the public to stay at home
Camden High Street, one of Londons busiest tourist streets turns quiet
Thriller Live confirmed its West End run ended in the wake of the coronavirus outbreak
Empty and eerie Soho streets after stricter rules on social distancing announced
A woman pauses for a cigarette on Hanway Street, behind Tottenham Court Road
A man steps outside onto Hanway Street, that sits behind what is usually a bustling retail hub
And while older age-groups may be protected from serious illness and death, younger people still risk being struck down by long Covid.
OK, numbers of cases are coming down, but we were up at the top of Everest and it is a long way down, said Prof Scally. We are still in a really dangerous situation and yet again they are talking about opening up.
When the prime minister says irreversible, why would anyone believe him, given his appalling track record on foreseeing the development of the pandemic so far?
Rather than talking about dates for reopening, ministers should be ramping up the test and trace system and providing better support for those told to isolate, as well as funding extra space to allow better distancing and ventilation in schools, he said.
Former minister Harriett Baldwin told The Independent that data on vaccine effectiveness appeared to show it outstripping expectations.
The PM is right to take into account the best information from the scientists, but this is all going to schedule, so we could be able to lift everything by 1 May if things continue at this cracking pace, she said. We are keen to give the economy the best shot in the arm it can have, which is to have certainty about dates.
Mr Johnson again ruled out the issuing of vaccine passports for domestic use, but said that documentation to allow international travel was very much in the mix down the road, adding: I think that is going to happen.
The travel industry called for work on the scheme to be stepped up to allow it to be operational by the summer holiday season.
Mark Tanzer, chief executive of travel agents trade body Abta, said: The current restrictions have not only stopped travel but have dented peoples confidence in booking.
We believe that there should be a plan for the starting up of travel again and the government needs to be working on that now, not waiting till the summer. Were confident that if thats put in place then people will be able to travel and they can book now for summer holidays.
Boris Johnson says move to ease lockdown will be irreversible - The Independent
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