Boris Johnson faced fresh Tory anger over ‘moving the goalposts’ on lockdown today after he delivered a stark warning that coronavirus is starting to ‘surge’ again in Europe.
The PM admitted he was under pressure to ramp up the pace of his roadmap as infections and deaths tumble – with Nicola Sturgeon revealing that she is stepping up the loosening in Scotland.
But Mr Johnson warned it is not yet possible to ‘get back to normal’ with the levels still ‘much higher than last summer’.
‘We can see the signs of a surge of Covid among some of our European friends, and we remember how we in the UK have tended to follow that upwards curve, if a few weeks later,’ he wrote in an article for the Telegraph.
‘We know how fast this disease can take off, and that Monday’s successful return to school will inevitably add to the budget of risk.
‘The overwhelming majority of people – and businesses – would prefer us to take steps that are cautious but irreversible, rather than go backwards again.
‘They would rather trade haste for certainty.’
However, the Covid Recovery Group of lockdown-sceptic Tory MPs renewed its calls for Mr Johnson to move earlier, complaining that ministers are ‘moving the goalposts’.
CRG head and former chief whip Mark Harper pointed to the way Transport Secretary Grant Shapps stressed the importance of second vaccine doses in interviews this morning.
He claimed ministers were now ‘casting doubt on the efficacy of the vaccine’ despite the UK’s four chief medical officers saying the first dose brings ‘substantial protection’.
Boris Johnson (pictured at PMQs today) warned it is not yet possible to ‘get back to normal’ with coronavirus levels still ‘much higher than last summer’
Infection rates have been increasing in a number of European countries recently
Nicola Sturgeon hints at broad lockdown easing from in Scotland from April 26
Nicola Sturgeon today paved the way for a broad lockdown easing in Scotland when the ‘levels’ system in reintroduced on April 26.
The First Minister said while she wanted to adopt a national approach initially, those areas with lower rates on infection could hopefully ‘go faster’.
The First Minister has already announced the intention for Scotland to return to its levels system, with different tiers of restrictions applying in different areas, from April 26.
But with the current lockdown, combined with the vaccination programme, resulting in falling case numbers, she was pressed on whether the easing of restrictions could go faster.
The First Minister told MSPs on Holyrood’s Covid-19 Committee that Scotland had recorded 691 further coronavirus cases – 3.1 per cent of all new tests carried out – and 20 more deaths in the past 24 hours.
She added that by 8.30am on Wednesday a total of 1,809,158 Scots had received their first dose of the vaccine – some 40 per cent of the adult population.
But when asked about her plans for not returning to the levels system until April 26, Ms Sturgeon said coronavirus was still ‘circulating at levels that are too high for comfort’.
She added that the strain of the virus that is dominant in Scotland is ‘much more infectious’ than infections last year.
Mr Harper said: ‘We must not keep the country in lockdown, with all the substantial harm it brings, a moment longer than necessary.
‘Government ministers should stop changing the tests for lifting restrictions each time we get close to the finishing line.’
He said: ‘The NHS has done a brilliant job at vaccinating the vulnerable and we’ve had one of the fastest rollouts in the world. We must not squander this advantage with muddled thinking that is not based on the science.’
On talkRadio earlier, Mr Shapps highlighted the need to ‘allow time for the vaccinations to actually do their thing – and remember it’s three weeks after the vaccination, and then you need the second vaccination’.
But Mr Johnson’s tough line echoes that from medical and science chiefs Chris Whitty and Patrick Vallance when they appeared before MPs yesterday.
Nicola Sturgeon has heaped pressure on the PM by declaring that Scotland is relaxing its lockdown rules sooner than expected, to allow up to four people from two households to meet outside from Friday.
They will be allowed to gather for ‘social and recreational reasons’, including in home gardens, on March 12 – three days earlier than previously planned, the First Minister said.
For children aged between 12 and 17, outdoor meetings will also be limited to four people, but these can be from up to four households.
Outdoor, non-contact sports for adults in groups of up to 15 will also be able to start again from Friday, Ms Sturgeon told Holyrood yesterday.
Ahead of a wider announcement on easing the Scottish lockdown that she will make next week the First Minister also said that religious buildings will be allowed to open for communal worship from March 25.
Congregations of up to 50 people will be allowed to meet as long as there is space for social distancing, in a move designed to allow the celebration of Easter, Passover and Ramadan.
Currently only two people from different households are allowed to socialise outdoors in Scotland.
That was due to increase to four people from March 15, but has been moved to the nearside of the coming weekend to allow the public to get out a little more.
Mr Johnson’s schedule is already more ambitious than Scotland’s, but he is facing growing calls to step it up again.
Scotland is to relax its lockdown rules to allow up to four people from two households to meet from Friday, with Nicola Sturgeon suggesting much of the country will see significant relaxations from April 26
Cases have been falling in Scotland as the lockdown and vaccine rollout takes effect
Two households should be allowed to mix outdoors in England from March 29, and schools returned in full from yesterday.
Ms Sturgeon said her government ‘will not hesitate’ to ease restrictions earlier if data supports it, Nicola Sturgeon has said.
In his article today, Mr Johnson acknowledged the Tory calls for an accelerated blueprint.
‘I know there are plenty of people who think we should be going faster out of lockdown,’ he said.
‘They look at the success of the UK vaccine rollout. They see the falling numbers of deaths and hospitalisations.
‘They think the Government should hurry up and bring forward the timetable.
‘To all of those who want to speed up I say, I understand your urgency. I share your desire to get back to normal.
‘But we must recognise that the rate of infection is still high – much higher than last summer.’
He went on: ‘So we will continue on the roadmap we have set out, step by step, jab by jab, until we can get absolutely everything open, at the earliest by June 21.
‘Businesses know how much time they have to plan, and to get ready, and we in Government cannot afford to waste a second of the coming weeks. Now is the time to lay the foundations of a lasting and growing recovery.’
Yesterday Prof Whitty warned a deadly third wave of coronavirus is inevitable as he defended England’s ultra-cautious roadmap.
England’s chief medical officer argued ‘all the modelling’ suggests Covid infections will spike at some point after restrictions are eased, despite uptake of the vaccines being high.
He claimed it was ‘perfectly realistic’ that tens of thousands more Brits could be killed by the virus, pointing out that flu claims up to 20,000 lives during a bad year.
Professor Whitty insisted slower was safer when it came to easing the curbs because it gives more time for the vaccine programme to reach younger Brits, who are more likely to be super-spreaders.
Batting away calls for lockdown to be loosened sooner, Professor Whitty warned: ‘If you open up too fast, a lot more people die – a lot more people die… I think it’s very easy to forget quite how quickly things can turn bad if you don’t keep a very very close eye on it.’
Professor Whitty and Sir Patrick were quizzed by MPs on the House of Commons Science and Technology Committee this morning.
Sir Patrick warned ministers would be ‘flying blind’ if they leave a gap of less than five weeks between each step, claiming going any quicker would not give them enough time to to analyse the data