Britain could face harsh restrictions for many months to come, Boris Johnson and his chief scientists warned as figures suggested more than 1 million people in England are infected with coronavirus, or one in every 50.
The prime minister said the plan to emerge from a newly-imposed national lockdown in mid-February was subject to “lots of caveats, lot of ifs”. He refused to guarantee that children would be fully back at school before the summer, calling this a “fundamental hope”.
Prof Chris Whitty, England’s chief medical officer, warned some restrictions on normal life may still be necessary next winter. Covid-19 would not disappear “in a single bound”, he said, though he said he believed measures would be significantly eased through the warmer months.
The Office for National Statistics figures revealed on Tuesday that 2% of the UK population were estimated to have had the virus between 27 December and 2 January. Some 1.1 million people in private households were infected with Covid-19 in England, or one in 50 people, rising to one in 30 in London, the Downing Street briefing was told. The figure was one in 45 for south-east England, eastern England and north-west England.
More than 60,000 positive tests were recorded, and the 830 daily deaths were the highest since New Year’s Eve.
The prime minister said almost a quarter of the over-80s, who make up one of the most vulnerable demographics, had now been vaccinated against the virus, and the UK would release daily immunisation totals from next week.
Unveiling England’s third national lockdown on Monday, including the closure of all schools, Johnson said more than 13 million of the most vulnerable people should receive the first dose of a Covid vaccine by mid-February, including all over-70s.
Johnson claimed it might be possible to start relaxing the lockdown measures from February but conceded this “depends on a number of things”.
“Provided we don’t learn anything new about the virus that we don’t yet understand, there’s not some new mutation that we haven’t currently bargained for; provided the vaccine rollout goes according to to plan; provided the vaccine is as efficacious as we think it is; but above all, provided that everybody follows the guidance now,” he said. “I wouldn’t put it any stronger than that.”