inisters want to eventually ditch social distancing laws and move to “personal responsibility”, Health Secretary Matt Hancock has said, as Boris Johnson hailed the Government’s roadmap out of lockdown as a way to make lives “incomparably better”.
He also admitted he cannot guarantee that the vaccination programme will prevent restrictions from ever returning. The four-part plan reportedly came after scientists warned the Prime Minister that lifting restrictions at Easter could cause a surge in infections.
Today, Mr Hancock said part of the plan is to encourage people to make their own decisions on how to approach socialising, rather than having laws “that get in the way of normal life”.
He told Times Radio: “Patrick Vallance was clear yesterday that mask wearing in winter is one of the examples of things that might need to stay.
“What we want to do is get rid of the social distancing-type laws that get in the way of normal life and move to personal responsibility, rather than laws dictating how all of us live our daily lives.”
He added: “But, it is also clear that eradication is unfortunately not possible with this disease, so we are going to have to learn to live with it.
“In the same way that for instance we live with flu, but we don’t let flu get in the way of living our lives.
“But we do vaccinate against it every year – in the case of flu we vaccinate those who are most vulnerable – and so I expect to have that vaccination programme as a regular feature of future life.”
He also urged people to continue to follow the current lockdown restrictions.
He told Sky News: “This isn’t just about choices the Government makes, it’s 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 and 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 rollout the vaccine.”
The Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage) has released papers which show how modelling predicts a big rise in cases and deaths if restrictions lift too quickly, even with the continued success of the vaccine programme.
“Relaxation of a significant number of restrictions over three months starting from the beginning of April could lead to hospital occupancy higher than the January peak, whereas relaxation over nine months would result in a much smaller peak,” the paper states.
Mr Johnson has accepted that scientific modelling suggested that lifting measures will increase Covid-19 cases and ultimately deaths, but said restrictions cannot continue indefinitely.
Summarising what the papers show, the Government’s chief scientific adviser Sir Patrick Vallance told a Downing Street press conference: “The modelling lays out a series of scenarios. None of them are the precise ones which the Government ultimately decided to go for, but they lie between those options and that’s the point of the modelling to lay out scenarios, not to point to a single answer.”
He added: “Vaccines are predicted – as you’d expect and hope – to make a big difference.
“But even with high vaccine levels, and indeed quite high vaccine coverage, it’s important to remember that a large number of people in the population remain unprotected.”
Mr Johnson’s current plan will see a five-week gap between each phase to allow for a gradual lifting of the restrictions, a move Mr Hancock described as “vital” to allow ministers to see the impact of the eased restrictions.
A further easing will take place on March 29, when the school Easter holidays begin, with larger groups of up to six people or two households allowed to gather in parks and gardens.
What are the four stages of easing coronavirus restrictions?
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.
Mr Johnson told a Downing Street press conference: “Thanks to the vaccinations there is light ahead, leading us to a spring and a summer, which I think will be seasons of hope, looking and feeling incomparably better for us all.”
It came as the Government launched a review looking at the use of “Covid status” certificates, which could be used by people to demonstrate they had received a jab or a negative coronavirus test in order to enter venues, or allow firms to reduce restrictions as a result of the status of their customers.
But Mr Johnson acknowledged there are “clearly some quite complex issues, some ethical issues” including discrimination surrounding them.
International travel rules will also be reviewed, with May 17 targeted as the earliest possible date for a foreign holiday.
Meanwhile, Chancellor Rishi Sunak is under pressure to extend measures such as the furlough scheme, which is due to expire at the end of April, when he delivers his Budget on March 3.
Mr Johnson indicated that the continued restrictions on some businesses will lead to an extension in taxpayer-funded support schemes, saying: “We will not pull the rug out.”
But Conservative MP Steve Baker, the deputy chair of the Covid Recovery Group of Tory lockdown-sceptics, said the “pace of change will be a hammer blow” to industries such as aviation, hospitality and the arts.
And Sir Graham Brady, the influential chairman of the 1922 committee of Tories, argued the “massive lurch” towards state power during lockdown “must be reversed and it must never happen again”.
“We should recognise that these aren’t freedoms that belong to the state, they are freedoms we were lucky enough to be born with. The Government has taken our freedoms away and they should be restored as quickly as can safely be done,” he wrote in the Daily Telegraph.
MP Mark Harper told LBC that delays to lifting restrictions were due to the Government “understating” the performance of the vaccine, based on models it had looked at.
The Forest of Dean MP said: “The biggest flaw is they assume a very low uptake of the vaccine. We know the uptake of the vaccine is over 90 per cent in the top groups that have been vaccinated, above 95 per cent, they’ve assumed 15 per cent of the population don’t take the vaccine.
“I have two problems with that, one is that isn’t realistic, that’s not what’s happening, but secondly there is a real question about whether the rest of the country should be held back for two months because some people choose not to take the vaccine.”
He added: “The Government seems to have looked at some models with dodgy assumptions and have effectively delayed opening the country by two months.”
The road map will be put to a Commons vote before the House rises for Easter in late March.
In Northern Ireland, Arlene Foster has promised a “decision-making framework” on how the executive plans to exit lockdown will be published on March 1, with the First Minister saying the dates for the phased reopening schools could be revisited.
Additional reporting by PA Media.