Johnson under pressure to commit to March 8 school reopening

David Hughes, PA Political Editor

Boris Johnson is under pressure from Tories not to let the timetable for easing lockdown slip, despite warnings from senior scientists about the dangers still posed by coronavirus.

The speed of the vaccine rollout – with the 15 million people in the four highest priority groups set to have been offered a jab by Monday’s target date – has increased pressure on the Prime Minister to commit to the March 8 date for reopening schools, the first relaxation of England’s restrictions.

Data up to Wednesday shows a rise of 450,810 jabs on the previous day to 13,509,108, meaning an average of 372,723 first doses of vaccine are needed each day to reach the 15 million target.

In order to meet the Government’s promise of giving teachers, pupils and parents a fortnight to prepare for reopening, Mr Johnson will have to set out his plans on February 22.

But Downing Street would only commit to saying Mr Johnson will set out his road-map out of the lockdown that week – rather than specifically on the 22nd.

Meanwhile a member of the Government’s Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage) warned it was not sensible to set out a road-map at all at the moment.

Wellcome Trust director Sir Jeremy Farrar suggested daily infections needed to fall dramatically before any such move could be considered.

“Transmission is still incredibly high in the UK. If transmission were still at this level and we were not in lockdown, we would be going into lockdown,” he told the BBC.

His comments came after another Sage member, Professor John Edmunds, said “we will have to be under some kind of restrictions for some time” until adults had received two vaccine doses.

On Wednesday, chief scientific adviser Sir Patrick Vallance said it was crucial to ease restrictions “cautiously” and rejected the setting of deadlines.

Conservative former minister Steve Baker, deputy chair of the Covid Recovery Group (CRG) of lockdown-sceptic Tories, said: “Having a full public debate is essential at this time but I fear senior scientists are failing to recognise their power to spread despair and despondency.”

He added: “I look forward to the Prime Minister’s February 22 roadmap out of restrictions so that we can all reclaim our lives once and for all.”

Some CRG members fear the goalposts for easing lockdown are shifting away from vaccinating the most vulnerable and protecting the NHS to a wider goal of suppressing cases to low levels in order to prevent the rise of mutant strains.

The Prime Minister’s official spokesman said: “We want to see infection rates continue to fall across the UK not least so that will ease the pressure on the NHS and ultimately lead to fewer people sadly dying.

“We will look at the data in the round and we will use that to inform the road-map.”

People aged 80+ who have received first dose of Covid-19 vaccine
(PA Graphics)

Meanwhile:

– Health Secretary Matt Hancock said the rollout of coronavirus vaccines is “absolutely essential” for summer holidays to take place.

– An online booking system for England’s quarantine hotels regime crashed ahead of the policy coming into force on Monday.

– Tocilizumab, a drug used to treat rheumatoid arthritis, could help to save the lives of one in 25 patients admitted to hospital with Covid-19 and reduce the need for a mechanical ventilator, scientists have found.

– Scottish Health Secretary Jeane Freeman warned there will be a drop in vaccine supply across all four nations of the UK, caused by work being carried out by Pfizer – the manufacturer of one of the approved coronavirus jabs.

– Downing Street insisted it is acceptable for children living in homes with gardens to use public play parks, in contradiction to official advice which states they are “primarily” intended for those without private outdoor space.

– Test and Trace figures published by the Government on Thursday showed 148,809 people in England tested positive for Covid-19 in the week to February 3 – down 24% on the previous week and the lowest number since the week to December 9.

– The Government said a further 678 people had died within 28 days of testing positive for Covid-19 as of Thursday, bringing the UK total to 115,529, while were a further 13,494 lab-confirmed cases of coronavirus, bringing the total number of cases in the UK to 3,998,655.

The Prime Minister has signalled he wants England’s schools to reopen on March 8 as the first sign of a return to normality.

Mr Johnson and other ministers have variously committed to detail the plan to ease England’s third national lockdown on Monday 22 or during the week that follows.

On Thursday the Prime Minister’s official spokesman said: “We’ve been clear we will publish the road map on the week of the 22nd.”

The spokesman said “we’ll give at least two weeks” to schools.

Former chief whip Mark Harper, chairman of the CRG, said: “The Prime Minister, vaccines minister and Health Secretary have all confirmed that the plan for lifting restrictions would come on February 22.

“It’s crucial we don’t backslide on this, not least because the Government has said it wants to give schools two weeks notice before they open, and – as the PM said – it is the ‘settled will’ of most MPs that pupils should be back in school on March 8.”

Tory MP William Wragg raised a point of order on the issue in the Commons, warning a statement after February 22 risked “pushing it towards Easter” before pupils could return to class.

Coronavirus – Thu Feb 11, 2021
Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer views the Covid-19 testing facilities during a visit to Heathrow Airport (Ian Vogler/Daily Mirror/PA)

Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer said: “The Prime Minister said he’s aiming for March 8, he needs to keep to that. We do need to get our schools open.”

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