A group of lockdown-sceptic MPs has told Boris Johnson that coronavirus restrictions must be fully lifted by the end of April.
In a letter to the prime minister, the COVID Recovery Group said there will be “no justification” for restrictions to remain once all over-50s have been offered a jab.
The CRG described reopening England’s schools on 8 March as a “national priority” that must be achieved, and said pubs and restaurants should be allowed to open in a COVID-secure way by Easter.
More than 60 Conservative backbenchers are said to have backed the letter, which demands that Mr Johnson commits to a timetable for exiting lockdown.
The group wrote: “COVID is a serious disease and we must control it. However, just like COVID, lockdowns and restrictions cause immense social and health damage, and have a huge impact on people’s livelihoods.
“The vaccine gives us immunity from COVID, but it must also give us permanent immunity from COVID-related lockdowns and restrictions.”
By 8 March, three weeks will have passed since the top four priority groups in the government’s vaccine rollout – including everyone over 70 and the clinically extremely vulnerable – have had a jab, giving them some protection against the virus.
Given how these groups account for 88% of deaths and 55% of hospitalisations, the CRG said all restrictions beyond this date “should be proportionate to the ever-increasing number of people we have protected” – and ministers must prove that any measures kept in place are effective, as well as provide a cost-benefit analysis.
Mr Johnson is planning to unveil a roadmap for easing England’s lockdown on 22 February – and has confirmed that reopening schools on 8 March is his aim.
But despite saying he’s “optimistic” about the coming months, the prime minister is being more cautious than some in the CRG might like.
“We have to be wary of the pattern of disease. We don’t want to be forced into any kind of retreat or reverse ferret,” Mr Johnson said during a visit to a vaccine manufacturing site in Teesside on Saturday.
In a separate letter to the prime minister, the pub giant Young’s said there is no reason that bars can’t open in April – and claimed that the government’s decision to keep hospitality venues closed is based on “unproven statistics”.
The company’s chief executive, Patrick Dardis, urged the government “to save our great British pubs” – adding: “We are exasperated at the obvious lack of interest and respect we are getting from this government.”
Some medical experts have warned it is “premature” to talk about pubs reopening in April, as we don’t know where infection rates will be.
Dr Bharat Pankhania, senior clinical lecturer at the University of Exeter, said: “What the executives of pubs need to know is that failure to get it right equals going back to square one – and back to square one equals much more pain economically, much more hardship.
“It is better to get it right than to prematurely bow to pressure and open up when you’re not ready to open up.”
Philip Barker, who owns The Fat Badger hotel and bar in Harrogate, agreed – telling Sky News that allowing hospitality venues to reopen, and then forcing them to close again, would have dire consequences.
He said: “The costs associated when you open and shut – and obviously trying to run the business properly – it’s not easy. My message would be ‘If we’re going to open, please can we stay open’.”
The Sunday Telegraph claims some of the first activities that could get the green light on 8 March include meeting a friend for coffee on a park bench, or going for an outdoor picnic with members of your household.
This would be a relaxation of current rules, which state that outdoor meetings are only allowed while you’re standing up.
According to The Sunday Times, Mr Johnson’s plans to reopen primary and secondary schools goes against the advice of some government scientists, as it will raise the R number for infections.
The Mail on Sunday says beer gardens and outdoor dining could be allowed to resume as early as 30 March – with the 10pm pub curfew scrapped, as well as the requirement to have a substantial meal with alcohol.
Downing Street has refused to be drawn on the reports that outdoor restrictions will be eased, with one source in Number 10 warning “the pressures on the NHS are still very significant”.
As of Saturday, the number of UK adults given one dose of a coronavirus vaccine has risen to 14,556,827 – putting the government on track to hit its target of 15 million across the top four priority groups by tomorrow.
NHS staff are also going to begin vaccinating the over-65s and clinically vulnerable from Monday, with more than a million people having already received their invitations to book a jab.
Government data released on Saturday shows there have been a further 621 COVID-related deaths and 13,308 new coronavirus infections.
It brings the UK total to 116,908 deaths and 4,027,106 cases.
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