Ministers have 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 today’s deadline. 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.
Among the measures expected to be announced are the return of schools, with people reportedly set to be allowed to meet one friend for coffee on a park bench, rather than just for exercise, as currently permitted.
The easing of lockdown on March 8 is likely to be followed by the return of one-to-one outdoor sports such as tennis and golf. The opening of non-essential shops is then expected, followed by easing of curbs on hospitality, starting with drinking and eating outdoors in pubs and restaurants.
The PM is already under pressure from some Tory MPs to push ahead amid frustration at the damage that is being done to the economy and the impact on people’s lives.
During the weekend, more than 60 lockdown-sceptics in the Covid Research Group (CRG) signed a letter calling for him to commit to a firm timetable, starting with the re-opening of schools on March 8 and ending with the lifting of all legal controls by the end of April.
Senior Conservative backbenchers have also urged Mr Johnson to allow Covid-safe weddings to resume from March 8 before permitting unrestricted ceremonies from May 1.
But Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab told Sky News’s Sophy Ridge programme: “We’re not making what feels to me a slightly arbitrary commitment without reviewing the impact the measures have had on the transmission, and the hospital admissions.”
Mr Johnson added they would need to study the data “very, very hard” for evidence that the rollout of the vaccines is driving down the incidence of the disease, as the numbers of cases fell.
While he was “optimistic” that a “cautious” easing of lockdown measures would be possible, he said that he did not want to be forced into a “reverse ferret” if there was a fresh resurgence of the disease.
Health Secretary Matt Hancock said on Monday that data was not yet available to suggest what the impact of the vaccination programme had been on reducing Covid-related deaths.
He told Sky News: “The signs are that, thankfully, the number of deaths is falling and has been coming down for a few weeks.
“It is too early to say whether that is directly due to the vaccination programme yet.
“It is too early to be able to measure the direct impact but of course we are looking at that and we can see overall that the number of cases is coming down sharply, the number in hospitals is coming down but it is still too high – at the latest count there were 23,000 people in hospital with Covid.”
Despite this, ministers are reportedly looking at plans that would allow people to go away for self-catering breaks as soon as the Easter holidays.
“If grandparents had had the vaccine, that would be likely to be okay. Given that people will have immunity, that would be a fair assumption, but nothing has been decided,” a Government source told the paper.
The pace of lifting restrictions will depend on scientific advice, with infection rates, and the number of hospitalisations and deaths among the factors.
Chris Hopson, the chief executive of NHS Providers, warned against easing restrictions “prematurely” saying they needed to remain vigilant for new variants of the virus which may prove less susceptible to the vaccines.
“We must not let down our guard in our fight against the virus. There is still a lot to understand before we can be wholly certain of the impact of the vaccination programme,” he said.
Daily politics briefing: February 15
Mr Hancock said ministers “absolutely” wanted this lockdown to be the last.
He added: “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.
“For me, making sure that as we lift measures, we do so carefully and cautiously to make sure that we don’t have to put them on again, that is at the core of the judgment we have to make.”
Ministers have said the re-opening of schools remains their first priority, although reports have suggested the return may be staggered, with secondary schools going back a week later.
A Government spokesperson said: “We do not comment on leaks.”
Additional reporting by PA Media