Government says lockdown easing won't be sped up as PM insists 'the balance is right'

Ross McGuinness

Watch: Hancock warns lockdown easing timeline could move slowly

Matt Hancock has insisted the government will not be forced into speeding up its roadmap out of England’s coronavirus lockdown.

The health secretary said the exit out of lockdown will be done “as fast as safely possible - but no faster”.

It follows criticism of prime minister Boris Johnson's lockdown exit strategy from his own MPs.

On Tuesday, Johnson said: “Some people will say that we’re going to be going too fast, some people will say we’re going too slow.

“I think the balance is right, I think it is a cautious but irreversible approach, which is exactly what people want to see."

The prime minister announced on Monday that all COVID-19 restrictions on social contact will be lifted on 21 June at the earliest.

In his roadmap for exiting the lockdown, he said families can visit indoors and stay overnight from 17 May at the earliest.

Health secretary Matt Hancock said the government will not rush the easing of England's lockdown. (Sky News)
Health secretary Matt Hancock said the government will not rush the easing of England's lockdown. (Sky News)

Johnson outlined five key dates for easing restrictions in the months ahead.

Hairdressers and salons could be back from 12 April, while hotels can reopen and foreign travel will be permitted from 17 May at the earliest.

The first step of the plan will see all schools in England reopen from 8 March, with wider use of face masks in secondary schools.

Socialising in parks and public spaces with one other person will also be permitted from that date.

A further easing will take place on 29 March, when the school Easter holidays begin, with larger groups of up to six people or two households allowed to gather in parks and gardens.

However, Conservative MP Steve Baker, deputy chair of the COVID Recovery Group (CRG), which has criticised the government for being too slow to ease restrictions, said: "Today's pace of change will be a hammer blow to aviation, pubs, restaurants, hotels, gyms and pools, the arts and entertainment.

"Once again, it seems to be modelling not data driving decisions."

But on Tuesday, Hancock insisted the government will not speed up its easing of the lockdown.

He told Sky News: “We’re all absolutely determined to come out of this as fast as safely possible, but no faster.

"This should be irreversible - that is the goal - and then it’s a judgment about how much we can lift at what moment.

"It's very, very important that we can see the impact of one step before taking the next step.

"We want to be able to hit those milestones, but we will be vigilant and watch what's happening to make sure it's safe to make each move."

He added that everyone must play their role for the lockdown easing target dates to be met.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson during a media briefing in Downing Street, London, on coronavirus (Covid-19). Picture date: Monday February 22, 2021.
Prime minister Boris Johnson announces his roadmap out of lockdown during a media briefing in Downing Street on Monday. (PA)

"But it’s not just a judgment for us, it’s actually on everyone. This isn’t just about choices the government makes, it’s actually about how everybody responds and pulls together.

"We can see the light at the end of the tunnel and the best way to get there is for everybody to keep abiding by the rules, as they are in very, very large parts.

"Then, as we release things, we need to move at that pace because that is what we expect to be the safe way to get out of this as fast as we can as we roll out the vaccine programme.

"It's on all of us to make sure we can by continuing to follow the rules between now and then as the vaccine rollout continues and as the really, really positive impact of those vaccines takes effect. This is on all of us."

Setting out his four-step plan on Monday, Johnson defended his “cautious but also irreversible” approach to relaxing restrictions, saying he would not be “buccaneering” with people’s lives.

But progressing along the schedule will depend on meeting four tests: the success of the vaccine rollout, evidence of vaccine efficacy, an assessment of new variants, and keeping infection rates below a level that could put unsustainable pressure on the NHS.

Watch: Boris Johnson hopeful lockdown easing measures are irreversible