U.K.’s Johnson Says ‘Early Days’ in Lockdown Easing Plans

U.K. Prime Minister Boris Johnson has warned Britons that it’s “still early days,” when it comes to lifting the country’s strict lockdown rules.

“We have rates of infection in this country still very, very high” Johnson said in a video posted on social media on Friday evening. Despite the progress Britain is making on vaccinating its population against coronavirus, “I want to stress that it is still early days,” he said.

The comments come as the U.K. plans to offer all over-50s a first dose of a Covid-19 vaccine by May, the first time that Johnson’s government has set a target for the next stage of its vaccination program.

The pledge, which was included in an announcement that local and mayoral elections will go ahead on May 6, immediately prompted fresh calls from Conservative members of parliament to lift most restrictions in the spring.

England is in its third national lockdown and Johnson hopes the vaccination rollout will allow ministers to start lifting restrictions from March 8, starting with the reopening of some schools. He has urged caution over the pace of easing, with hospitalizations and the number of deaths each day expected to remain high for some time.

The risk of lifting lockdown too quickly was underscored by modeling from Imperial College London, which warned that even if vaccinations continue at around 3 million doses a week, “this would still lead to an additional 130,800 (103,200 - 167,600) deaths between now and June 2022.”

The current vaccination rate is the bare minimum needed to avoid hospitals being overwhelmed, Imperial said in the report published Friday, and a “more cautious approach to gradually lifting” lockdown measures may need to be considered. Its modeling was conducted in January.

But Mark Harper, who chairs a lockdown-skeptic backbench group of Conservative MPs, seized on the May vaccination target to as a deadline for lifting the majority of virus rules.

“It will be almost impossible to justify having any restrictions in place at all by that point,” he said. “These top nine groups account for around 99% of those that have died from Covid and about 80% of hospital admissions.”

Earlier on Friday, the government said it aims to vaccinate the top nine priority groups by May, including everyone over the age of 50, as well as people with certain clinical conditions. Johnson’s office had been under pressure to provide an explicit target, having previously said it would be the “end of spring.”

Vaccine Drive

Ministers have already said they are on course to meet an initial target for the top four priority groups -- those over the age of 70 and the extremely vulnerable -- to be offered a vaccine by mid-February.

Despite the vaccination efforts, there are growing concerns that plans to ease lockdown could be blown off course with the emergence of new strains of coronavirus if they prove more resistant to shots. The U.K. is beefing up restrictions at the border and will require people arriving from virus hot spots to quarantine in hotels starting Feb. 15.

The Office of National Statistics estimates one in 65 people in England were infected with Covid-19 in the week ending Jan. 30, down from one in 55 previously. On Friday, the U.K. reported an additional 19,114 cases and 1,014 deaths within 28 days of a positive test, bringing the total since the pandemic began to 111,264.

Speaking to broadcasters, Health Secretary Matt Hancock said it is too early to think about which measures can be eased in March, with 31,670 people hospitalized with Covid-19. “That is far, far too many,” he said.

‘Booze Ban’

In order to ensure that socializing with alcohol does not lead to social distancing rules being flouted, the government is considering a “booze ban” as part of measures designed to ease lockdown restrictions, the U.K.’s Telegraph newspaper reports.

Under the mooted rules, restaurants and pubs could reopen as soon as April if they agree not to sell alcohol under options being discussed to allow the widespread relaxation of coronavirus restrictions after Easter, the newspaper said.

The rules are being discussed after chaotic scenes emerged following the reopening of pubs after the first national lockdown was lifted in 2020, the Telegraph said.

©2021 Bloomberg L.P.

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