Matt Hancock today hailed a ‘little step towards freedom for us all’ after the Government hit its 15million vaccinations target as he slapped down Tory demands to lift all lockdown rules by the end of April.
The Health Secretary said ‘there is a long way to go’ before life can return to normal and while coronavirus cases are falling ‘sharply’ the number of people in hospital with the disease is still ‘too high’.
He also said it is ‘too early to say’ whether the falling number of deaths is ‘directly due’ to the vaccine roll-out.
Mr Hancock’s comments represent a firm rebuke to the Covid Recovery Group of Conservative MPs which has demanded Boris Johnson remove all legal restrictions in England by the end of April.
It comes amid growing speculation over the Prime Minister’s lockdown exit strategy which he will unveil on Monday February 22.
Ministers are said to be discussing plans to allow shops to re-open, families to be re-united and self-catering staycations to be given the go ahead if Covid-19 infection rates continue to plummet.
Plans to ease lockdown were boosted yesterday by figures showing the dramatic impact vaccines are already having as Mr Johnson last night confirmed the country had hit its target of vaccinating the 15million most vulnerable people two days ahead of schedule.
Mr Hancock described hitting the target as an ’emotional moment because it is the moment that protects us and also it is just a little step towards freedom for us all’.
The PM had said the number of new cases has already dropped ‘very considerably’ preparing the way for lockdown measures to be relaxed.
It is thought that this could mean the re-opening of High Street shops within weeks as well as the easing of restrictions on outdoor exercise and socialising.
Ministers are also said to be considering plans to allow for families of a single household to travel across the UK for an Easter holiday in self-catered accommodation.
It has led to growing hope that families will be able to meet outside by Easter as early as next month to allow grandchildren to reunite with their grandparents.
What are the UK priority groups for vaccinations?
1. Residents in a care home for older adults and staff working in care homes for older adults
2. All those 80 years of age and over and frontline health and social care workers
3. All those 75 years of age and over
4. All those 70 years of age and over and clinically extremely vulnerable individuals (not including pregnant women and those under 16 years of age)
5. All those 65 years of age and over
6. Adults aged 16 to 65 years in an at-risk group
7. All those 60 years of age and over
8. All those 55 years of age and over
9. All those 50 years of age and over
The latest coronavirus developments came as:
- The Government’s hotel quarantine for arrivals from 33 ‘red list’ countries came into force.
- Mr Hancock said the forced quarantine in Government-approved accommodation has been running ‘smoothly’ since it began at 4am.
- More than a dozen senior Tory MPs have urged the PM to allow Covid-safe weddings to resume from March 8 before permitting unrestricted ceremonies from May 1.
- The World Health Organisation’s special envoy for the global Covid-19 response, Dr David Nabarro, said he expects ‘some sort’ of vaccine passport for travel will be introduced in future.
- Hospitality chiefs said the Treasury will need to be bring forward fresh support for the sector if pubs, restaurants and hotels cannot reopen before the end of March.
More than 60 MPs in the CRG, led by former chief whip Mark Harper, backed a letter to Mr Johnson insisting he commit to a firm timetable for ending controls.
They said schools ‘must’ return on March 8 as planned with pubs and restaurants opening in a ‘commercially viable manner’ from Easter, with the end of April marking the final end of lockdown.
The Government is aiming to have vaccinated the top nine priority groups by the end of April and the CRG believes that must be the point at which lockdown finally ends.
But Mr Hancock dismissed the calls for a firm timeline, telling Sky News this morning: ‘Of course there is a long way to go and in a way the most important message remains the message for everybody to stay at home and abide by the rules.’
Welcome to Hotel Quarantine! First Heathrow arrivals land to be immediately escorted to £1,750 isolation room for 10 days
The first passengers were dropped off at hotels this morning at the start of the Government’s new travel quarantine scheme – as a hospitality boss vowed to make their ten-day, £1,750 stay more ‘homely’ with ‘branded shampoo, puzzles and crockery’.
Travellers were seen being dropped off at the four-star Radisson Blu Edwardian near Heathrow after arriving from a variety of ‘red list’ countries including the UAE and South Africa.
The hotel offers spacious and airy rooms with large windows, Egyptian cotton linen and goose down pillows. Standard rooms cost around £150 a night while superior suites include their own Nespresso machine.
Throughout their stay guests will have to eat airline-style food left at their door, change their own sheets and towels and be accompanied by security if they want fresh air or a cigarette outside.
Fatima, who arrived from Dubai and was waiting for her baggage by the coach told MailOnline: ‘I’m with my two children who are waiting inside the hotel.
‘We knew that we would have to quarantine and don’t have a problem with this. This is a lovely hotel and I think it will be a nice stay. I’m actually quite looking forward to it.’
The requirement to spend 10 days in a Government-approved hotel applies to travellers arriving in the UK from 33 ‘red list’ countries which have experienced significant outbreaks of mutant strains of the disease.
He added: ‘We have got to watch the data and look, I talk to Mark Harper and others all the time because everybody wants to get out of this as quickly as we safely can, both quickly but also as safely are important. That is what everybody agrees with.
‘The question is a judgement of how quickly we can do that safely. That is the judgement that we will be making this week, looking at the data ahead of the Prime Minister setting out the road map on the 22nd, a week from today.’
Mr Hancock said the ‘signs are that thankfully the number of deaths is falling and has been now coming down for a few weeks’.
But pointing to the start of the vaccine roll-out in December, he added: ‘It is too early to say whether that is directly due to the vaccination programme yet.
‘In those first couple of weeks in December the numbers were relatively small, we are going up half a million a day now whereas in December we did a million in the whole of December from the 8th through to New Year.
‘So 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 numbers in hospitals is coming down but it is still too high – on the latest count there is still 23,000 people in hospital with Covid.’
Mr Hancock said he was ‘really, really proud of the team’ after the Government hit its 15million vaccinations target.
‘We hit it two days early and right across the whole of the UK, managing to ensure that everybody in groups one to four is offered a jab and got 15 million jabs done,’ he said.
‘But you say I danced a little jig, that was referring specifically to when members of my family got vaccinated and I know that for millions of people this is such an emotional moment because it is the moment that protects us and also it is just a little step towards freedom for us all.’
Tory MP Steve Baker, the deputy chairman of the CRG, today hit back at the Government’s suggestion that the group’s demand for a lockdown deadline is arbitrary.
He told the BBC Radio 4 Today programme: ‘If we were talking about something arbitrary then of course the criticism would be correct but we are not talking about something arbitrary and there is no question of just plucking dates out of the diary, that is simply wrong.
The Prime Minister said the number of new cases has already dropped ‘very considerably’ preparing the way for lockdown measures to be relaxed
Academy chief warns school reopening date ‘being pulled out of thin air’
An academy chief today cast doubt on ‘optimistic’ plans to get all pupils back into school at the start of March as he warned dates were ‘being pulled out of thin air.’
As the PM faces mounting pressure to send children in England back to school, Downing Street has suggested that all primary and secondary children can return to classrooms three weeks today.
But Steve Chalke, the head of the Oasis Academies Trust, described Number 10’s plan as ‘impossible’.
He suggested ministers take a ‘regional approach’ by vaccinating all staff before sending pupils back.
He also warned schools needed to create more space including having marquees in playgrounds, to avoid children being ‘like sardines in a can’.
Mr Chalke is the founder of the Oasis Trust, which runs 53 schools around the country.
He warned against the chaotic scenes last September, when all children were sent back after the summer break, ‘like sardines into a can.’
He told BBC Radio 4 Today’s programme: ‘We’re optimistic because the vaccine seems to be working, we all want to get children back…because we know all children will learn better with their peers in a classroom than at home online or whatever.
‘But optimism can be born of two things – dreams and hopes or planning and preparation.
‘What we don’t need is a false start.
‘It’s one thing to open schools – it’s another thing to keep them open.
‘Dates are pulled out of thin air – March 8, after half-term, January 4, it could be Easter, it could be May.’
‘The reality is that what we have said is intimately connected with the vaccine roll-out plan and that is something to be celebrated, we know these vaccines work… that is why we have said now that the top four groups are vaccinated accounting for 88 per cent of Covid deaths that is why the Government should now be opening schools because we can’t afford to be cavalier about the harm to children.
‘We have said that other restrictions which remain in place should be proportionate to the harms which Covid is then capable of causing, bearing in mind the accelerating number of people vaccinated.
‘Likewise, hospitality by Easter we will be looking at two thirds of groups one to nine vaccinated and therefore harms that Covid inescapable of causing will be again substantially diminished.
‘For hospitality you are either open at Easter or you are not. It is a major time of the year for hospitality so it is very important that Government takes note of the harms caused to hospitality by being kept close.
‘And then of course by May 1 we will have vaccinated all of the top nine groups which remember includes people under 50 who are clinically extremely vulnerable and others with underlying health conditions.’
Writing in The Telegraph overnight, Mr Baker had said the nation must have ‘free life by May 1’.
It is thought that due to the vaccine rollout success ministers are currently looking at plans that would allow families that live in the same household to go away for self-catered staycations as soon as the Easter holidays.
However, that has raised fears that letting people travel long distances to their destinations could lead to ‘big movements’ across the UK – potentially leading to a spike in coronavirus cases once again.
The latest developments could also see the easing of restrictions on outdoor exercise and socialising as early as next month with the return of one-to-one outdoor sports such as golf and tennis.
It is thought that this will be followed by the re-opening of non-essential retailers with pubs and restaurants being allowed to serve people outdoors later in April.
Indoor hospitality would not return until May with the possibility of delay until August.
The pace at which restrictions are eased will depend on the ongoing scientific advice but ministers are also considering plans to allow grandparents to reunite with their grandchildren outdoors from next month.
Mr Johnson had previously urged people to wait until the government had issued a ‘road map’ out of lockdown (empty high street pictured in March last year)
Plans to ease lockdown were boosted yesterday by figures showing the dramatic impact vaccines are already having (packed high street pictured during December last year before the latest lockdown was imposed)
Wetherspoon boss Tim Martin wants punters back INSIDE bars to coincide with non-essential shops reopening
Wetherspoon today called on the Government to open its pubs at the same time as non-essential shops as bars remain shut across Britain during the third lockdown.
Ministers are said to be considering plans to allow hospitality firms to serve customers outside by Easter, which falls on the weekend of April 2.
But a full reopening is not expected until May at the earliest – and Wetherspoon boss Tim Martin warned that the industry is ‘on its knees’ and must reopen to save jobs.
It comes as Mitchells & Butlers, which owns All Bar One, Toby Carvery and Harvester said it will raise £350million from its largest investors to shore up its finances.
M&B, which is Britain’s largest listed pub company, operates around 1,700 restaurants and pubs across the UK but cut about 1,300 jobs last year.
The developments follow a bust-up between pub groups and the Government which has seen companies pull out of regular business roundtables in frustration.
Schools are set to be the first to return, with ministers targeting a date of March 8 for classrooms to welcome back pupils.
People could also be allowed to meet friends and family outdoors on a one-to-one basis.
A government source told The Telegraph that there could be an exemption to the one-to-one outdoor meeting rule for children: ‘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.’
Mr Johnson last night a ‘significant milestone’ as the number of people in the UK receiving a coronavirus vaccine passed 15million.
The Prime Minister said it was an ‘extraordinary feat’ just over two months after 91-year-old Margaret Keenan became the first person in the world to receive a Covid-19 jab as part of a mass vaccination programme.
In a video message posted on Twitter, Mr Johnson said: ‘Today we have reached a significant milestone in the United Kingdom’s national vaccination programme.
‘This country has achieved an extraordinary feat – administering a total of 15 million jabs into the arms of some of the most vulnerable people in the country.’
The announcement paves the way for the rollout to be extended to the next five priority groups – including the over-50s – who are due to be completed by the end of April.
In England, 1.2 million letters have already gone out to 65 to 69 year-olds and the clinically vulnerable inviting them to book an appointment.