The five steps that need to happen before Covid lockdown can be lifted

BORIS Johnson has set out the steps that need to happen before the lockdown can be lifted, saying we “cannot relax too soon”. 

The Prime Minister gave a somber update this afternoon, revealing a “gradual and phased” exit strategy won’t be put into motion until March 8 at the earliest.

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Schools are the top priority, Mr Johnson told MPs in the House of Commons today, and students returning to the classroom “should be the first sign of normality”.

The PM said schools will not reopen until March 8 or later, when the most vulnerable Britons will have some immunity against the virus after receiving the first dose of their jab. 

And the “economic and social restrictions” – forcing pubs, cinemas, and shops to shut – could be eased “then or thereafter”.

Mr Johnson acknowledged everybody “yearns to know” how much longer the UK must endure the tough restrictions.

But he said the UK remains in a “perilous” position, and to re-open the country too soon would run the risk of the NHS coming under more pressure again. 

He said the overall picture will be clearer in mid-February when ministers can start to set out the path to normality.

“[In the week February 22] we intend to set out the results of that review and publish our plan for taking the country out of lockdown”, Mr Johnson said.

“That plan will of course depend on the continued success of our vaccination programme, the capacity of the NHS and on deaths falling at the pace we would expect as more people are inoculated.”

So what does the UK need to do before lockdown is lifted? 

Vaccinate the top four priority groups

The Government plans to vaccinate almost 14 million people by February 15.

They are in the top four of nine priority groups, and include everyone over the age of 70, healthcare workers, including care home staff, and the most clinically vulnerable.

Mr Johsnon said the UK was “on track” to reach all four top groups by mid-February due to the fast roll-out of jabs from Pfizer and AstraZeneca.

And if the target is reached, those 14 million people will all have some immunity against the virus three weeks later, on March 8.

It is on that Monday that the Government hopes to safely re-open schools – the first step out of lockdown. 

Experts from Edinburgh University said releasing all measures at the end of April – once all those in the first phase of the vaccination programme covering over-50s have been offered a jab – could still lead to a huge surge in cases.

More than 6.8 million people have received their first dose of the vaccine so far, including four-fifths of over 80s, and more than half of those in their 70s. 

In total 13 per cent of adults have been given one dose of the jab so far, and everyone should receive it by autumn.

Reduce the R rate

The R rate is a measure of the severity of the Covid outbreak.

The R number is how many people an infected person passes the virus onto, and can be suppressed by everyone reducing their contacts.

Scientists say the R must be below 1 in order for the outbreak to shrink because this means every Covid patient infects fewer than one other person.

Currently, the official estimate for the R rate is between 0.8 and 1, down from between 1.2 and 1.3 in mid-January.

Government scientists gave the latest estimate on Friday, and the R could be as low as 0.6 in some areas.

Mr Johnson said “so far our efforts do appear to have reduced the R rate”, in regards to the lockdown.

However, he said we don’t have enough data to know for certain when it will be safe to re-open society and the economy.

If the R raises above 1 as a result of people mixing again, cases will start to creep up once more. 

Reduce pressure on the NHS

The PM said the UK remains in a “perilous situation with more than 37,000 patients now in hospital with Covid, almost double the peak of the first wave”.

There are also more patients in intensive care in NHS hospitals than at any point in the pandemic, with 4,032 people currently on life-saving ventilators.

Daily hospital admissions are beginning to slow down, but still, around 3,800 are being admitted every day.

It means the pressure on the NHS is likely to persist for many weeks, as doctors and nurses treat each patient for an average of three weeks. 

Mr Johnson said if the lockdown was lifted too soon, the NHS could come under more pressure still.

It could lead to ministers slamming the breaks on the easing of lockdown and putting restrictions in place again, possibly for longer. 

Mr Johnson said “we can’t predict with certainty today” how well the vaccine roll-out will cut down the number of people needing hospital care for coronavirus.

Deaths need to fall as more people inoculated

Mr Jonson said at this stage, it is not clear how effective the vaccines will be at reducing hospitalisations and deaths from Covid.

The main goal of the vaccine roll-out is to drive down hospital and death rates first.

The PM said it will become clearer from mid-February whether vaccinating the most vulnerable of society helps to significantly reduce the number of people dying of Covid.

He said the plan to exit lockdown will rely partly on “deaths falling at the pace we would expect as more people are inoculated”.

But he did not clarify how quickly officials expect to see numbers dwindle.


Around 1,100 people are still being reported as Covid deaths every day in the UK.

But this has started to flatten, according to the chief medical officer Professor Chris Whitty.

He told the Downing Street press briefing yesterday that “unfortunately we’re going to see quite a lot more deaths over the next few weeks before the effects of the vaccines begin to be felt”.

He added: “I think we have to be realistic that that is going to happen. But trying to actually put a number on that, I don't think is helpful to anybody.”

Bring infection rates down

Needless to say, coronavirus infection rates need to come down because the fewer cases there are, the less deaths.

NHS boss Sir Simon said at Tuesday's briefing that infection rates are "fundamentally the driver of deaths".

It came after Mr Johnson said the coronavirus infection rate remains “pretty forbiddingly high” – too high to ease lockdown restrictions.

He told the Downing Street press conference, on the day the death toll passed 100,000: “It’s fair to say the rate of infection is still pretty forbiddingly high but at a certain stage we will want to be getting things open.

“What I will be doing in the course of the next few days and weeks is sending out in more detail as soon as we can when and how we want to get things open again.”

Mr Johnson said opening society back up depends on the UK succeeding to drive the infection rate down and rolling out vaccine programme as fast as possible.

Prof Whitty said the new coronavirus variant that emerged in Kent has really changed the situation in 2021, and it is "much harder" to control.

He said the data shows the lockdown is "just about holding" the new variant, as opposed to drastically reducing infection rates at speed.

Prof Whitty has previously warned even a “very small change” while cases are high could cause a rapid resurgence, while chief scientific adviser Sir Patrick Vallance has warned against “getting too hooked” on specific dates for easing measures.

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