Matt Hancock slaps down Neil Ferguson over speeding up roadmap

Matt Hancock today slapped down Professor Neil Ferguson after he suggested the government’s ‘roadmap’ out of lockdown could be speeded up if things go well.

The Health Secretary insisted there is no question of the timetable for easing restrictions being upgraded despite the unusually optimistic view from the leading epidemiologist.

The spat came amid growing Tory and business disquiet about the ultra-cautious approach being taken by Boris Johnson, even though the vaccination drive has been surging ahead.

Schools will return on March 8, but there will be almost no further loosening of the draconian curbs before Easter.  There will be a five week gap between each of the four main stages of the plan, with scientists having won the argument in government that time is needed to assess the impact.

The PM has been boosted by snap polls showing the public largely backs his stance, with 46 per cent telling YouGov it is about right – and around a fifth suggesting it is too fast.  

Prof Ferguson – whose grim modelling triggered the initial lockdown last year – sounded a bright note on Times Radio last night. 

‘Hopefully what we’ll see when each step happens is a very limited resurgence of infections. In which case, there’s a chance we can accelerate the schedule,’ he said. 

However, Mr Hancock dismissed the idea of speeding the schedule up in a round of interviews this morning. ‘No. We need to see the effects of each step, and that takes five weeks,’ he said. 

Meanwhile, the leader of the Covid Recovery Group of lockdown-sceptic Tories has claimed the Government’s roadmap is based on ‘dodgy assumptions’.

In other developments today:

  • 178 virus deaths were recorded – the fewest since mid-November. The seven-day average for cases was 11,186, compared with a peak of 68,053 on January 8;
  • Downing Street confirmed ministers will examine the case for so-called ‘vaccine passports’, having rejected the idea two months ago;
  • Chief scientist Sir Patrick Vallance warned that face masks and self-isolation may be needed again next winter;
  • Millions of secondary school pupils will have to wear masks in the classroom when they return to school on March 8;
  • Scientists unveiled ‘spectacular’ data suggesting one dose of the Covid vaccine is cutting the hospitalisation risk among the over-80s by three-quarters;
  • Chief medical officer Chris Whitty said NHS and care home staff had a ‘professional responsibility’ to get vaccinated;
  • The PM hinted the £50billion furlough scheme will be extended until at least the summer.

Neil Ferguson

Matt Hancock

Matt Hancock

Matt Hancock (right) today slapped down Professor Neil Ferguson (left) after he suggested the government’s ‘roadmap’ out of lockdown could be speeded up if things go well

How will lockdown ease in the roadmap?  

Step One Part One: March 8

From March 8, all pupils and students will return to schools and colleges across England.

So-called wrap-around childcare will also be allowed to resume, paving the way for after and before school clubs to reopen.

People will be allowed to meet one other person outside for recreation, for example, to have a picnic or to meet for coffee.

Care home residents will be able to have one regular named visitor.

The Government’s stay at home order will remain in place, with travel for non-essential purposes still banned.

Step One Part Two: March 29

From March 29, outdoor gatherings of up to six people or a larger group from up to two households will be allowed. These gatherings will be allowed to happen in private gardens.

Outdoor sports like tennis and basketball will be allowed to reopen and people will also be able to take part in formally organised outdoor sports.

It is at this point that the Government’s stay at home guidance will end, to be replaced by ministers encouraging people to ‘stay local’.

However, the Government is expected not to define what constitutes local, instead choosing to rely on people using their common sense to decide on journeys.

People will still be told to work from home wherever possible while international travel will still be banned unless it is for essential purposes.

Step Two: April 12

Nom-essential retail will be allowed to reopen as well as personal care premises like hairdressers, barbers and nail salons.

Public buildings like libraries, museums and art galleries will be allowed to welcome back customers.

Meanwhile, hospitality venues and outdoor attractions like theme parks will be given the green light to reopen in some form.

However, there will still be rules on household mixing: Essentially any activity which involves being indoors will be restricted to members of the same household.

Gyms and swimming pools will also reopen from April 12 but only on the basis that people go on their own or with their own household.

Pubs and restaurants will be able to reopen but at this point they will only be able to have customers outdoors.

Any visits to a pub or restuarant will have to comply with the rules on social contact, so no more than two households or the rule of six.

The Government will not be bringing back the old requirement for people to order a substantial meal with alcohol while the old 10pm curfew will be ditched.

All customers at hospitality venues will also have to be seated when they order food or drink, with ordering at the bar prohibited.

Campsites and holiday lets where indoor facilities are not shared with other households can also reopen but trips must be restricted a single household.

Funerals will be allowed to continue with up to 30 people, while the rules on wedding receptions will be eased to allow the number of guests to increase from six to 15.

Step Three: May 17

The two household and rule of six requirements for outdoor gatherings will be ditched but gatherings of more than 30 people in places like parks will still be banned.

Crucially, mixing indoors will be allowed again. The rule of six or a larger group from up to two households will be allowed to meet.

However, this will be kept under review by ministers to see if rules could be relaxed still further.

This is also the point at which pubs and restaurants and other hospitality venues will be able to open indoors, with the rule of six and two household limit in place. But groups meeting outdoors at pubs will be allowed to be bigger.

Entertainment venues like cinemas and children’s play areas will be able to reopen, as will hotels and B&Bs. Indoor adult sports groups and exercise classes can also reopen.

Changes will also be made to sporting and performance events in indoor venues with a capacity of 1,000 people or half full

Former chief whip Mark Harper told LBC that delays to lifting restrictions were due to the Government ‘understating’ the performance of the vaccine.

The Forest of Dean MP said: ‘The biggest flaw is they assume a very low uptake of the vaccine.

‘We know the uptake of the vaccine is over 90 per cent in the top groups that have been vaccinated, above 95 per cent, they’ve assumed 15 per cent of the population don’t take the vaccine.

‘I have two problems with that, one is that isn’t realistic, that’s not what’s happening, but secondly there is a real question about whether the rest of the country should be held back for two months because some people choose not to take the vaccine.’

He added: ‘The Government seems to have looked at some models with dodgy assumptions and have effectively delayed opening the country by two months.’

Announcing his plan last night, Mr Johnson insisted he was putting Britain on a ‘one way road to freedom’ that would put the nation in an ‘incomparably better’ position.

Progress along the roadmap will depend on meeting four tests: the success of the vaccine rollout, evidence of vaccine efficacy, an assessment of new variants, and keeping infection rates below a level that could put ‘unsustainable’ pressure on the NHS.

The Prime Minister denied he was being overly cautious, saying the reopening would happen ‘as fast as we reasonably can’ and the ‘end really is in sight’.

Insisting that the unlocking would be led by ‘data not dates’, he added: ‘I won’t be buccaneering with people’s lives.’ But he acknowledged there was no guarantee a fourth lockdown would not be needed if the virus took an unexpected turn.

It has emerged that Sage scientific advisers had warned heavily against an accelerated timetable, saying it would lead to many more infections.

They said a further 90,000 deaths could result in a worst-case scenario. They modelled the effects of allowing solo indoor visitors as early as March 29 but found it would increase hospital admissions significantly. 

Under an initial scenario, Mr Johnson had planned to reopen outdoor pubs and restaurants, outdoor attractions and non-essential shops in time for the Easter Bank Holiday weekend – but this was delayed until April 12 following criticism by Government scientists.

Papers released last night showed that the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies warned No10 there would be at least another 30,000 coronavirus deaths in even the ‘most optimistic’ case – and possibly 91,000 caused by a dramatic spike in cases following a rapid easing of lockdown in April. 

Presenting their modelling of a series of different roadmaps out of lockdown, the scientists claimed that without a gradual approach, the pressure on NHS hospitals would peak in June at nearly 60,000 coronavirus inpatients – higher than even last month’s peak of 39,000 patients. 

The SAGE papers also showed that the timetable, which also would have brought the full reopening of hospitality in either April or May, could have led to 55,000 further deaths and the R rate rising by as much as 0.5. 

Scientists were again urging caution today as the government fended off criticism. 

Dr Mike Tildesley, reader in mathematical modelling of infectious diseases at the University of Warwick and a member of the Government advisory group SPI-M, said the ‘one-way route to freedom’ promised by the PM was ‘potentially a little bit uncertain’.

When asked whether the dates for lifting restrictions may change, he told the Today programme: ‘In terms of the future dates, I think we always need to be aware that the Government needs to be reactive – if we do see a spike in cases or if we see things not going down as fast as we hoped, I think there needs to remain the possibility to hold off for a couple of weeks so we get things in control.

‘Particularly if the Government wants to have this one-way route to freedom, which I think in itself is potentially a little bit uncertain.

‘It may be that we have to have some measures introduced for a little bit of time in order to prevent these surges of infection occurring so that ultimately we can take virtually a one-way route back to normality.’

Dr Tildesley said that he was ‘concerned’ that the virus might persist particular parts of the country.

Asked on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme whether Covid-19 could remain a ‘disease of the deprived’, he said: ‘This is a real concern actually for me and I know a number of other scientists have raised this, that we may end up in a situation where we have the ‘vaccine rich’ and as it were, who are able to access the vaccine who have taken up the vaccine and are at much lower risk.

‘And the maybe people in society who have not taken up the vaccine and potentially these individuals could be clustered in particular parts of the country, and there is increased risk there.

‘So I think it’s something that we do need to do more about to make sure that the vaccine is available to everyone to take up and so that we minimise the risk of the virus persisting in particular parts of the country, and causing much more harm to those communities.’

Mr Hancock suggested masks will stay a fact of life today as he said the aim is to move to ‘personal responsibility’ rather than social distancing laws.

‘Patrick Vallance was clear yesterday that mask wearing in winter is one of the examples of things that might need to stay,’ he told Times Radio.

‘What we want to do is get rid of the social distancing-type laws that get in the way of normal life and move to personal responsibility, rather than laws dictating how all of us live our daily lives.

‘But, it is also clear that eradication is unfortunately not possible with this disease, so we are going to have to learn to live with it.

‘In the same way that for instance we live with flu, but we don’t let flu get in the way of living our lives.

‘But we do vaccinate against it every year – in the case of flu we vaccinate those who are most vulnerable – and so I expect to have that vaccination programme as a regular feature of future life.’ 

The roadmap confirmed the Government will undertake a revaccination programme, with booster jabs in autumn;

Foreign holidays will remain banned until at least May 17, with no guarantee they will be permitted this summer. Staycations will not restart for Easter;

The wedding industry complained it had been left in limbo, with gatherings limited to 30 until at least June 21;

In the Commons, the PM acknowledged that there was ‘no credible route to a zero-Covid Britain’ – and said the UK had to learn to live with the virus. He said: ‘That is why it is so crucial that this roadmap should be cautious but also irreversible.’

Mr Johnson was quizzed repeatedly by MPs on why the slow route out of lockdown failed to match the rapid pace of the vaccine roll-out.

He said the vaccine was not 100 per cent effective, and that some people were refusing it or unable to take it – potentially leaving a ‘large minority who will not have sufficient protection’.

He added: ‘The risk is that letting the brakes off could see the disease surge up in such a way as again to rip through a large number or rip through those groups in a way that I do not think anybody in this country would want.’

Mr Harper said the easing of the lockdown could not be delayed by people refusing jabs.

Fellow Tory Bill Wiggin urged ministers to do more to ensure people ‘get jabbed and let the rest of us out’.

At last night’s Downing Street press conference, the PM batted away complaints from Tories and business over his ‘cautious’ roadmap by insisting that he was prioritising ‘certainty over urgency’ and promising that his exit plan would end the cycle of shutdowns. 

Under his four-point roadmap, schools in England will reopen from March 8 – though the next stage of loosening will not be until March 29, when the formal Stay at Home edict is finally dropped in favour of ‘Stay Local’, and the Rule of Six makes a comeback. It will be extended to allow two households to gather, enabling relatives to meet properly for the first time in months. 

But shops, hairdressers and pubs must remain closed until April 12 at the earliest – the same time gyms can get back up and running – regardless of mounting fears about the economic meltdown. 

Campsites and holiday lets can reopen for single households from April 12 – but international travel is completely off the cards until at least May 17. Social distancing rules will stay in force until June 21 at the minimum, with a government review to decide their future after that. 

Sports can start to return from May 17, although venues will need to work on reduced capacities. Up to 30 people can go to weddings from the same date, but are stuck at that number until the next phase of the roadmap.

Only at June 21 will all legal limits on social contact go, and the remaining elements of the hospitality sector be allowed to open. The PM stressed that he is being driven by ‘data not dates’ and the timeline is not guaranteed.

The PM has been boosted by snap polls showing the public largely backs his stance, with 46 per cent telling YouGov it is about right - and around a fifth suggesting it is too fast

The PM has been boosted by snap polls showing the public largely backs his stance, with 46 per cent telling YouGov it is about right - and around a fifth suggesting it is too fast

The PM has been boosted by snap polls showing the public largely backs his stance, with 46 per cent telling YouGov it is about right – and around a fifth suggesting it is too fast

We could be in masks for years as SAGE advisers suggest Britons follow ‘baseline measures’ including self-isolating with a cough INDEFINITELY

Wearing masks and self-isolating if you get a cough could stay in place for years.

Government scientists suggest we follow ‘baseline measures’ indefinitely.

These include avoiding crowded public transport, ensuring good ventilation indoors, and wearing masks in certain situations.

The test, trace and isolate scheme and app are also likely to stay in place.

In a document dated February 17, Sage said: ‘Maintaining baseline measures to reduce transmission once restrictions are lifted is almost certain to save many lives and minimise the threat to hospital capacity.’  

Chief Scientific Adviser Sir Patrick Vallance said: ‘The sooner you open up everything, the higher the risk of a bigger resurgence. The slower you do it, the better.’

Addressing the research, Mr Johnson told MPs: ‘No vaccine can ever be 100 per cent effective. As the modelling released by SAGE today shows, we cannot escape the fact that lifting lockdown will result in more cases, more hospitalisations and sadly more deaths. 

‘This would happen whenever lockdown is lifted because there will always be some vulnerable people who are not protected by vaccines.’

The SAGE papers show that scientists had warned that, even with the successful vaccination rollout, millions would remain susceptible to infection and death.

The gloomy forecasts, by experts at Imperial College London and Warwick University, were signed off by SAGE last week and effectively dashed hopes of a rapid return to normality. 

Scientists were asked to model different scenarios for the roadmap, including relaxing all restrictions in April, or waiting until August. Experts found that ‘all of the relaxation scenarios lead to a third wave of infections’.

A gradual approach to lifting restrictions, over several months, was essential to prevent an ‘unsustainable rise in hospital admissions’.

Sage also modelled the effects of people being allowed single visitors into their homes as early as March 29, which would have allowed Easter reunions.

They stressed that allowing people to mix indoors before June would lead to ‘significantly higher numbers of infections’, resulting in a wave of hospital admissions similar to last month.

The SPI-M modelling group, which reports to Sage, concluded that to keep admissions below levels of the first wave, indoor mixing should not be allowed until June and July.

Professor Angela McLean, deputy chief scientific adviser, said: ‘If you unlock more slowly, the peak that you get is less high.’

Sir Patrick said: ‘The modelling lays out a series of scenarios. None of them are the precise ones which the Government ultimately decided to go for, but they lie between those options.’

He warned that despite huge progress with the vaccine rollout, a large number of people remained unprotected and cases are high. 

Sir Patrick said the easing of lockdown must be done using a step-by-step approach, so the effect of each measure can be assessed.

He added: ‘That means probably allowing something like four or five weeks between each step – four weeks to be able to measure the effects of the step you’ve just taken, and then a week for people to actually get ready in terms of what needs to happen.

‘You will be flying blind on this if you don’t wait. I think being driven by what the data tells us is happening is the safest way to do this and making sure you make this irreversible… so you’re not then having to suddenly make a U-turn.’

While Sir Patrick praised the vaccine rollout, he warned jabs are not 100 per cent effective and said even if all adults were vaccinated, children would still not be protected. 

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Bourbiza Mohamed. Writer and Political Discourse Analysis.

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