England Aims to Start Easing Virus Lockdown in Early March

The U.K. will aim to start lifting its pandemic lockdowns in the first half of March, after stepping up a mass vaccination program this week.

Vaccines Minister Nadhim Zahawi said a gradual easing of restrictions could begin in the “first, second week of March.” He said it needs to be two to three weeks after the mid-February target to vaccinate the four most vulnerable groups so the shots have time to take effect.

Health Secretary Matt Hancock announced Monday that 4,062,501 people had received their first dose, and said the U.K. is currently vaccinating “more than double the rate per person per day” than any other country in Europe. Government data shows that another 452,301 people in the U.K. have had their second dose.

But Hancock urged Britons to stay home to prevent the spread of the virus derailing the immunization effort. “Don’t blow it now,” he said. “We’re on the route out. We have to stick at it.”

From this week, millions more people will be offered the vaccine -- including over-70s and those deemed “clinically extremely vulnerable” -- a move which Prime Minister Boris Johnson has called a “significant milestone” in the immunization effort.

England is in its third national lockdown, with schools closed and people ordered to stay at home, as the government attempts to control a surge in cases. There are currently more than 37,000 coronavirus patients hospitalized, and the daily death toll remains high -- with another 671 deaths recorded Sunday.

‘Gradual’ Opening

Johnson’s government is pinning its hopes on vaccinations to end the crisis and ministers will begin to review the lockdown restrictions on Feb. 15 when they “take stock” of what the vaccine program has achieved, the prime minister said in a pooled TV interview on Monday. He’s pledged to vaccinate all over-70s, health-care and care home staff and medically vulnerable people by then.

“It’s only really then that we can talk about the way ahead and what steps we can take to relax,” Johnson said. “And I’m afraid I’ve got to warn people, it will be gradual, you can’t just open up in a great ‘open sesame,’ a great bang; because I’m afraid the situation is still pretty precarious.”

Ten new mass vaccination centers will open this week -- including at a racecourse, cathedral and rugby ground -- taking the total in England to 17, with more to follow. There are also 1,200 hospitals and GP-led sites offering injections.

When enough people have been vaccinated, there will be a “gradual lifting” of “non-pharmaceutical interventions,” Zahawi told Times Radio. “You’re talking about the first, second week of March, where you should be seeing very clear evidence of a break in the correlation between infection rates and hospitalization and obviously death, because this is a race against death.”

Benefit Payments

The impact of 10 months of restrictions on businesses and workers means the government is under increasing pressure to do more to help the poorest families.

“We’ll put our arms around the whole country throughout the pandemic,” Johnson said. “The U.K. is capable of staging a very, very powerful economic recovery and we’ve got to look after people.”

The U.K.’s main opposition Labour Party is turning up the heat by forcing a vote in the House of Commons on extending a boost in benefit payments -- worth more than 1,000 pounds ($1,355) a year -- beyond March 31. A group of Conservative lawmakers who represent districts in northern England have also insisted ministers must extend the uplift in support.

The premier wouldn’t be drawn on whether he’ll extend the increase in universal credit payments, saying all assistance measures are “under constant review.”

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