A scientist who advises the government on coronavirus has predicted that the UK will “be more or less back to normal” by summer.
Fuelling hope that restrictions will start to ease significantly over the next few months, Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage) member Professor Andrew Hayward said that the key to ending the lockdown is getting the most vulnerable people vaccinated.
Hayward told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme: “Once the most vulnerable people, particularly those over 50 and those with chronic illnesses, are vaccinated then yes I think we can see a significant return to normality.
“That in addition to the fact coronavirus is a seasonal disease, I think will make a big difference and allow us to open up.
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“I think what we’ll see is a phased opening up as the vaccination levels increase, and then we will be more or less back to normal for the summer, I would imagine.”
Boris Johnson has previously insisted that the current national lockdown can start to be relaxed from 8 March at the earliest, with the reopening of schools being the top of the priority list.
Preliminary results from a study also appeared to show the Oxford vaccine cutting transmission rates by 67% – adding to optimism that this target date could be hit.
10 million get first dose
The UK’s successful vaccination programme has been hailed as “colossal” by Johnson, who yesterday announced more than 10 million people had been given their first dose.
The government has said it aims to have more than 13 million of the most vulnerable people in the first four groups of the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation (JCVI) priority list vaccinated by 15 February.
At a COVIID briefing on Wednesday evening, England's chief medical officer Professor Chris Whitty presented a slide (pictured below) highlighting the importance of vaccinating the top four at-risk priority groups.
Asked about the possibility of relaxing social distancing measures for those who have received a jab, Prof Whitty warned that “the rate of virus in the community is still incredibly high”.
He said it was still critical to use the vaccine to pull the rate of the virus right down, adding: “The way they [vaccines] reduce risk is by reducing the amount the virus is circulating in the population and that we are no way being close to.”
Scientists on the Independent Sage - the group working to provide independent scientific advice to the UK government and which has often been critical of its handling of the pandemic - have warned that restrictions should not be eased until cases levels are significantly lower.
Dr Zubaida Haque said: “Now that cases are coming down, the anti-lockdownwers are putting pressure on PM to ease restrictions. But since 1st December there have been 50,000 covid deaths & hospitals are still overwhelmed. It’s not just about bringing cases down; it’s about *keeping them down*.”
Despite encouraging figures for vaccines and cases coming down, the PM has insisted that it is “prudent” to stick to the planned 8 March opening date for schools in England, despite coming under pressure from his own MPs to speed up the process.
Johnson said the proposed date was three weeks after the most vulnerable should have been vaccinated, giving time for immunity to kick in.
The prime minister is, however, facing growing calls from inside his own party to speed up the easing of restrictions. According to the Daily Telegraph, Rishi Sunak is said to be “concerned that the scientists have been moving the goalposts” and that the key indicators for easing restrictions were now about case numbers rather than hospitalisations and protecting the NHS.
Former chief whip Mark Harper, the chairman of the COVID Recovery Group who has called for restrictions to be eased from 8 March, reiterated his pleas for the government to start easing all restrictions from 8 March.
He tweeted on Thursday: “We’ve got to demonstrate to the public how the good news about the vaccination rollout translates into a return to normal life.”
Dr Haque said in response to these reports: “Rishi Sunak has repeatedly pushed for easing of restrictions on the economy without understanding that healthy people=healthy economy. And #COVIDVaccination while great achievement is NOT the answer to reducing transmission; border quarantine, test, trace & supported isolation is.”
What’s the vaccine roadmap?
On Thursday, vaccines minister Nadhim Zahawi declined to give a date for when the next set of groups in the priority list will have received their vaccine.
Speaking to BBC Breakfast, Zahawi said: “We will set out our target (for vaccinating groups 5-9) after we have hit our 15 February target.
“But you can do the maths. We did 600,000 in a single day – the deployment infrastructure that we’ve built can do as much vaccines as we get supply, so the limiting factor will be vaccine supply.”
Pressed on whether that meant it would take another 35 days from 15 February to have jabbed all 31 million people in the first nine cohorts, Zahawi replied: “That assumes the supply, so I don’t want to commit to a date without going through it with a very fine toothcomb with the whole team, because our limiting factor is the supply of vaccines ultimately.
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