No end in sight as Boris Johnson says normality still some way off
Normality remains "some way off", Boris Johnson warned on Monday as it emerged that some measures to counter Covid could remain in place even after all adults have been offered a vaccine.
The Prime Minister confirmed that pub gardens and shops can open on April 12 but told people not to book overseas summer holidays yet because border reopenings could happen later than the planned date of May 17.
The Government also opened the door to the mass use of Covid status certification checks – described as Covid passports – saying they are likely to become "a feature of our lives" until the pandemic fades.
The caution came as modelling (below) from the Government's Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies showed that the full release from restrictions in June could trigger a new wave of Covid hospitalisations as bad as the January peak.
Scientists said that while vaccines were having a major impact by cutting illness and deaths, they were not effective enough to allow a return to normal social mixing without the risk of "a big epidemic".
Data released on Monday showed that Covid deaths fell 44 per cent in a week, while infections dropped by a third over the same period and patients admitted to hospital fell by almost a quarter.
At a press conference on Monday night, Mr Johnson said: "If things continue to go well I do think that, for many people in many ways, life will begin to get back to at least some semblance of normality. But we're still some way off there. We've got to be guided by the data and we've got to make sure that we follow the roadmap. That's the way to get there."
Prof Chris Whitty, England's chief medical officer, said: "I don't think there's any surprise that it [Covid] is still with us now, nor is it going to magically disappear over the next few months. This virus will be with us for the foreseeable future. We will have significant problems with Covid for the foreseeable future, and I don't think we should pretend otherwise."
Mr Johnson said the next stage of reopening in England on April 12 would go ahead as planned after a review of the data. It means that, from next Monday, pubs and restaurants will be able to serve outdoors, non-essential shops and hairdressers can reopen and outdoor attractions such as zoos and theme parks can have visitors.
"These changes are fully justified by the data," he said, adding that he was sticking to his reopening roadmap "like glue".
Looking ahead to the coming months, the Prime Minister urged caution and stressed that the country "can't be complacent" even given recent progress. "We can see the waves of sickness afflicting other countries and we've seen how this story goes," he said, referring to the third Covid wave hitting parts of Europe.
"We still don't know how strong the vaccine shield will be when cases begin to rise, as I'm afraid that they will. And that's why we're saying please get your vaccine or your second dose when your turn comes. And please use the free NHS tests, even if you don't feel ill."
Alongside Mr Johnson's press conference, the Government published an update on four reviews into international travel, crowded events, Covid status certificates and social distancing. The document noted that even with the success of the vaccine rollout, which has seen more than half the adult population get their first jab, concerns remain.
One part read: "Even after two doses the vaccine will not be 100 per cent effective and some people will not take up the offer of a vaccine. As a result, some measures may be required for a period after all adults have been offered a vaccine in order to prevent a surge in hospitalisations which could put unsustainable pressure on the NHS."
A first jab is due to be offered to all UK adults by the end of July, according to government targets. It is unclear by which point all adults will be offered a second jab.
On foreign holidays, the document said: "For the moment, the Government advises people not to book summer holidays abroad until the picture is clearer." It said it was too early to say whether a loosening of border restrictions could happen on May 17 or whether that would have to be delayed.
One government source pointed to Mr Johnson's repeated comment that he saw nothing in the data to suggest the roadmap should be altered to stress that a reopening of the border on May 17 remained possible. The document said it was still the Government's hope that summer holidays could happen this year.
The Government said Covid status checks could "play a role" in reopening theatres and nightclubs as well as mass events such as festivals or sports matches, but they should "never be required" for "essential public services, public transport and essential shops".
On the use of checks for pubs, it was much less clear. Consideration will continue, with the idea not ruled out – although pubs will be allowed to open without them for outdoor drinkers without them on April 12, with indoor serving planned for May 17.
Businesses would not be banned wholesale from using such checks, the Government said. The document explained that many companies would be free to adopt such measures provided they did not break equality laws.
Pilots for reopening large events will see Covid status checks trialled this month and next. It remains unclear when social distancing rules, included working from home, will be lifted.
Sir Patrick Vallance, the chief scientific adviser, said hand hygiene, people taking off time if they were ill and deciding to "stay at home rather than going in to work" could be social distancing changes adopted in the longer term.