Coronavirus cases need to plummet before lockdown can be eased, Johnson warned

David Hughes

The number of coronavirus infections needs to plummet to under 50,000 before Boris Johnson can consider easing lockdown, an NHS leader has warned.

The most recent figures suggested that 695,400 people in England had coronavirus in the week ending February 6.

NHS Providers chief executive Chris Hopson said there was a “pretty clear view” that “that number needs to come down to around 50,000”.

He has urged Boris Johnson to focus on “data, not just dates” when the Prime Minister sets out his road map out of lockdown on Monday.

Elsewhere, Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab said the Government has “ambitious targets” on testing when asked about reports a testing blitz is set to start in time for some schools reopening next month.

Mr Hopson’s organisation, which represents NHS trusts, has set out four “tests” which should guide easing: getting case numbers down, reducing pressure on the NHS, further strides in the vaccination programme and an effective strategy to control future outbreaks.

“If you look at where we are against those four tests, each one of them tells you that we’re still some way away from being able to start relaxing restrictions,” Mr Hopson told BBC Radio 4’s Today.

“We had 500 Covid patients in hospitals in September and yet, 15 weeks later, we had 34,000 patients, and we were perilously close to overwhelmed.

“So, what that says to you is that you just need to be really careful before you start relaxing the restrictions prematurely.”

HEALTH Coronavirus
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It comes as:

– The Reform think tank predicted that waiting lists could hit 10 million by April, equivalent to one in six people in England, as referrals for non-Covid cases begin to resume but limits on NHS capacity remain.

– The Foreign Secretary called for ceasefires in war zones around the world to enable the rollout of coronavirus vaccines.

– Surge testing will be deployed in parts of Norfolk, Southampton and Woking, Surrey, where the South African Covid-19 variant has been found, and expanded in Manchester.

Mr Hopson’s call for the Prime Minister to resist opening up too early came as reports suggested Downing Street is considering a cautious approach to easing the current measures.

The Daily Mail said ministers are weighing up allowing holiday lets to open in time for the Easter weekend and that pubs could open in May, but with only up to two households permitted to mix indoors.

The rule of six would then come into force for mixing inside by June, it added.

Meanwhile, the Daily Telegraph reported Covid-19 cases would need to sink to 1,000 per day before lockdown could be softened, a figure suggested by former health secretary Jeremy Hunt earlier this month.

That figure is a long way from the 10,625 lab-confirmed cases reported on Tuesday, and Downing Street said no decision had been made yet on easing the lockdown.

(PA Graphics)
(PA Graphics)

The Department for Health and Social Care (DHSC), meanwhile, did not deny suggestions that rapid-result testing will be at the heart of attempting to introduce a level of normality in the coming months.

The Times said NHS Test and Trace is preparing for nationwide “surge” testing under which more than 400,000 lateral flow tests, which can provide results in less than 30 minutes, will be sent by post to homes and workplaces every day under a scheme called: “Are you ready? Get testing. Go”.

Asked about the possibility of expanding the use of lateral flow tests, the department said more than 70% of local authorities in England were already offering rapid testing to those who are unable to work from home and pointed to the drive to widen the availability of quick-result testing to businesses with more than 50 employees.

A DHSC spokesman said: “We have not finalised further plans for testing.”

Daily confirmed cases of Covid-19 in the UK
(PA Graphics)

But when asked about the reports on Wednesday morning, Mr Raab told Times Radio: “We have got ambitious targets in relation to testing which we have met at various points, as well as the vaccine rollout.

“And we are absolutely doing everything we can to meet those targets. They are obviously designed to be challenging, because we want to get people out of the current lockdown as soon as possible.

“The only way to do that is responsibly, safely – that’s the way we make it sustainable.”

In a possible indication of what Mr Johnson could announce next week, First Minister Nicola Sturgeon has set out a phased return for schools in Scotland.

Primary school children between the ages of four and eight will be back in their classrooms from Monday, along with some senior students needing to do practical work for qualifications – but Ms Sturgeon stressed it was “unlikely” any more youngsters would go back before March 15.

The SNP leader was also cautious about holidays, telling people the Government was “likely to advise against booking Easter holidays” either overseas or within Scotland, as it was “highly unlikely” that hotels and self-catering accommodation will have been able to open by then.

For the summer, she said holidays in Scotland “might be” possible – although foreign travel was still “highly unlikely” to be permitted.

In Northern Ireland, the country’s education minister said a definitive decision might be made on Thursday about when schools can reopen.

The Stormont Executive has already said it will be March 8 at the earliest before schools can open their gates to more pupils.

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