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Boris Johnson says move to ease lockdown will be ‘irreversible’

Boris Johnson has said that England’s emergence from lockdown will be “cautious but irreversible” and that he hopes to set out target dates for relaxing restrictions in his roadmap on 22 February.

The prime minister’s comments add weight to expectations that the country’s third nationwide lockdown is intended to be the last.

Mr Johnson repeated his pledge that schools will be the first out of lockdown, and restated the target date of 8 March for the return to classrooms.

But he said no decisions have been made on whether year groups will return together, whether primary and secondary reopening could be staggered or whether exam years get back to face-to-face teaching first.

During a visit to a vaccination centre in Orpington, south-east London, he told reporters: “No decisions have been taken on that sort of detail yet, though clearly schools on 8 March has for a long time been a priority of the Government and of families up and down the country.

“We will do everything we can to make that happen but we’ve got to keep looking at the data, we’ve got to keep looking at the rates of infections. Don’t forget they’re still very high, still 23,000 or so Covid patients in the NHS, more than in the April peak last year, still sadly too many people dying of this disease, rates of infections, although they’re coming down, are still comparatively high.

“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 was speaking on the day when the NHS successfully completed the offer of first vaccine doses to more than 15 million of the most vulnerable over-70s, health and care workers and people with serious underlying health conditions.

He said that final decisions on the pace at which the UK can emerge from lockdown will depend on data expected in the coming days on how effective the vaccines have been in suppressing hospitalisations, serious illness and deaths.

The PM said he hoped his roadmap next Monday will include specific targets for the earliest possible dates for lifting restrictions on different parts of society and the economy.

His comments come amid speculation that meeting friends and family in parks may be permitted in March, with non-essential retail following soon after, travel for single-household breaks by Easter and outdoor service in pubs and restaurants by late April.

“If we possibly can, we’ll be setting out dates,” said Mr Johnson. “Just to help people think about what we’re trying to do on the 22nd, remember what we did… last year. We set out a roadmap going forward into the summer and looking a little bit beyond.

“That’s what we’re going to be trying to do. And the dates that we’ll be setting out will be the dates by which we hope we can do something at the earliest.

“If because of the rate of infection, we have to push something off and… delay for a little bit, we won’t hesitate to do that.

“I think people would much rather see a plan that was cautious but irreversible and one that proceeds sensibly in accordance with where we are with the disease.”

Mr Johnson again ruled out the issuing of “vaccine passports” for domestic use as proof of immunity to allow entry to pubs, concert halls or sports arenas.

Ministers are studying plans for vaccine certificates to facilitate international travel to countries demanding proof of inoculation.

The PM said that documentation to allow international travel was “very much in the mix down the road”, adding: “I think that is going to happen.”

But he added: “What I don’t think we will have in this country is, as it were, vaccination passports to allow you to go the pub or something like that.

“I think that that would be going it a bit.”

Mr Johnson indicated that he hoped to step up the use of rapid-turnaround lateral flow tests to allow greater social activity, saying the approach will “come into its own” in the next few months as higher proportions of the population are vaccinated.

The PM said coronavirus could not be allowed to spread freely after lockdown as it would cause the most vulnerable to “suffer” and increase the chance of dangerous new mutations in the virus.

Pressed on whether it would be safe to allow the virus to circulate once all those aged over 50 had been vaccinated, Mr Johnson said: “We would like to see the rates of infection come down very low indeed. That’s why we have the tough border regime, to stop infection coming in.

“And, as we get ever better with testing and tracing and enforcing fights against the new variants, we will want to see those rates really, really low.

“Because the risk is that if you have a large volume of circulation, if you’ve got loads of people – even young people – getting the disease then a couple of things happen.

“First of all, you have a higher risk of new variants and mutations within the population where the disease is circulating.

“Secondly, there will also be a greater risk of the disease spreading out into the older groups again.

“And although the vaccines are effective and great, of course no vaccination programme is 100 per cent effective. So when you have a large volume circulating, when you’ve got a lot of disease, inevitably the vulnerable will suffer.

“So that’s why we want to drive it right down, keep it right down.”

The PM urged people entitled to a coronavirus jab to come forward and make sure they get it.

“The numbers are very good for the over-80s, for the over-70s, and I think the 75-79 group you’re looking at 99 per cent that have been done,” said Mr Johnson.

“But there are some people who are still to come forward and I really do urge people to come forward.

“These jabs, these vaccines are safe, they are efficacious, they will help protect you against disease and against death and they’re a wonderful thing to have – they help protect you, your family, your neighbours.

“I think people get that and that’s why they’re coming forward in such numbers, but if you haven’t yet had a letter and you think that you need one, you think that you’re in the categories concerned, get on to the NHS or dial 119 and we’ll fix you with a jab.”

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