Boris Johnson has pledged a “cautious but irreversible” approach to easing the lockdown and said no decisions have been made on whether all pupils can return to school at the same time.
The Prime Minister stressed the need to be “very prudent” as ministers begin reviewing coronavirus restrictions in England, while lockdown-sceptical Tory MPs pressure for a swift reopening.
Mr Johnson is preparing to set out his “road map” for relaxing measures on February 22, with March 8 earmarked for schools to start reopening to all pupils.
He further signalled taking a cautious approach by warning that there is an increased chance of new and concerning variants emerging if infections remain high.
“When you have a large level of circulation, when you’ve got a lot of disease, invariably the vulnerable suffer so that’s why we want to drive it right down, keep it right down,” he said during a visit to Orpington Health and Wellbeing Centre in south-east London.
Ministers have said that reopening of schools is their first priority, but reports have suggested that a staggered approach may be taken, with secondary schools going back a week later than primaries.
“No decisions have been taken on that sort of detail yet, though clearly schools on March 8 has for a long time been a priority of the Government and of families up and down the country,” Mr Johnson told reporters.
He said “we will do everything we can to make that happen”, but warned that infection rates are still “comparatively high” and Covid-19 patients in the NHS remain higher than the April peak.
“So we’ve got to be very prudent and what we wanted to see is progress that is cautious but irreversible and I think that’s what the public and people up and down the country will want to see,” Mr Johnson added.
The Prime Minister’s official spokesman said the intention is to “start getting kids back to school from March 8”, but was not ruling out they could be sent back in stages.
Mr Johnson said he would aim to give target dates for restrictions being eased when he sets out his plan next Monday but “we won’t hesitate” to delay plans if infection rates necessitate.
His warnings came after more than 15 million people across the UK received their first dose of a vaccine.
Ministers said they are “on track” to meet the target of getting an offer of a first dose to everyone in the UK in the top four priority groups – including all over-70s – by Monday’s deadline.
But Mr Johnson urged people entitled to a jab to come forward and receive them after Health Secretary Matt Hancock suggested around a third of social care staff have not received a vaccine, despite them being one of the prioritised groups.
The Prime Minister’s spokesman said the Government favours encouraging care home staff to come forward and accept jabs rather than for employers making them mandatory, echoing vaccine minister Nadhim Zahawi in saying such a move would be “discriminatory”.
Meanwhile, the first international travellers required to isolate for 10 days at Government-designated quarantine hotels arrived at Heathrow Airport on Monday morning.
New rules force UK nationals returning from 33 “red list” countries to quarantine at the sites in an attempt to prevent new strains of the virus entering the country.
Th successful rollout of the vaccine programme is leading to increasing pressure from the Covid Recovery Group (CRG) of Conservative MPs to quickly end restrictions.
Over the weekend, more than 60 CRG members signed a letter calling for the Prime Minister to commit to a firm timetable ending with the lifting of all legal controls by the end of April.
But Mr Hancock said there is “some way to go” before lockdown is eased, stressing that the Government is awaiting key data on how successfully vaccines reduce transmission.
He told BBC Breakfast “we very much hope” that this will be the last lockdown, adding: “Having a sustainable exit – so, lifting the measures in such a way that can be sustainable and we don’t have to have another lockdown – that is obviously an important part of our considerations.”
Mr Hancock cited “early evidence” showing vaccines reduce the spread of Covid-19 by about two-thirds but he stressed that ministers want to “see that actually in the data, not just from the trials”, as well as a drop in hospital admissions and deaths from jabs, when considering easing restrictions.
Professor Neil Ferguson, a scientist advising the Government’s Covid response, urged caution and said there is “always a risk” around new variants, either from strains emerging from abroad or from home.
“Our current virus, which is the dominant one in the country, only requires one or two more mutations to partially escape immunity – and that means immunity naturally gained or immunity gained by being vaccinated – and so it is imperative that we monitor the situation as closely as we can,” he told ITV’s Good Morning Britain.
The Prime Minister confirmed on Sunday that the vaccine target had been met in England after First Minister Mark Drakeford announced on Friday that Wales had reached it.
The passing of the 15 million vaccinations mark paves the way for the next phase of the rollout – covering the next five priority groups, including the over-50s – to begin.
NHS England has already sent out 1.2 million invitations to the over-65s to book an appointment, with a similar number expected to go out this week.
The Government is aiming to get an offer of a vaccine to the estimated 17 million people in the next five groups by the end of April.