Health

Tory demand lockdown end date is brought forward from June

Coronavirus cases, deaths and hospital admissions are continuing to fall rapidly, according to official figures that will pile even more pressure on Boris Johnson to ease lockdown sooner.

Department of Health bosses today recorded 9,938 infections — down by a fifth on last week. Another 442 victims were also added to the toll, in a fall of more than 40 per cent. And hospital admissions in England plunged below 1,000 for the first time since the end of October.

Facing mounting calls from anti-lockdown Tory MPs to bring forward the June 21 date and give millions of people their freedom before the summer solstice, the Prime Minister defended his roadmap back to normality.  

The PM shrugged off demands from his own benches to ‘show urgency’ after No10 flatly ruled out accelerating the ultra-cautious timetable in the roadmap — despite Jacob Rees-Mogg saying there is ‘always flexibility’. ‘Professor Lockdown’ Neil Ferguson today repeated his view that it might be possible to shift the schedule up if vaccine and infection figures continue to exceed expectations.

But England’s deputy chief medical officer Jonathan Van-Tam insisted the plan was ‘appropriate’, suggesting the five-week gap between the stages of easing is needed to be sure the outbreak is not getting out of control again.  

Mr Johnson ran the gauntlet of the House of Commons this afternoon at PMQs as the row rages. Sir Keir Starmer said he supported the blueprint but goaded the premier over Conservative attacks on ‘dodgy assumptions’. 

The PM ducked by saying data have been put before MPs and the roadmap will set the country on a ‘cautious but irreversible journey to freedom’. Mr Johnson swiped: ‘He vacillates, we vaccinate – and we are going to get on with our agenda, cautious but irreversibly taking this country forward on a one-way road to freedom.’  

A Downing Street spokesman said today: ‘The dates set out in the roadmap are the earliest any changes will take place. We are very clear they won’t come forward.’ 

Meanwhile, Nicola Sturgeon today lashed out at Boris Johnson’s ‘made up’ June 21 lockdown end date as she faced a backlash over her vague plan for Scotland. The SNP leader addressed the PM’s target date as she took her daily briefing after unveiling her own rival ‘roadmap’. The blueprint, even more cautious in key respects than in England, sparked anger because it failed to give any schedules beyond April.

Number 10 put a successful roll-out at the heart of the ‘one-way’ path back to freedom. As long as the drive goes well, all restrictions could be dropped in England by June 21 — but any hiccups along the way could threaten that target.

But Britain’s vaccination drive has slowed down over the past fortnight. Another 355,000 doses were dished out yesterday, following a dramatic blip on Sunday and Monday. But the daily figure was still down 10 per cent week-on-week.

Ministers have blamed supply for the slow down, and Professor Jonathan Van-Tam today warned the UK won’t get ‘steady’ supplies of coronavirus vaccines for a ‘few months’.

Boris Johnson (pictured at PMQs) faces demands from his own benches to 'show urgency' after No10 flatly ruled out accelerating the ultra-cautious timetable in the roadmap

Sir Keir Starmer said he support the blueprint, but goaded the premier over Conservative attacks on 'dodgy assumptions'

Boris Johnson (left) faces demands from his own benches to ‘show urgency’ after No10 flatly ruled out accelerating the ultra-cautious timetable in the roadmap. Sir Keir Starmer (right) said he support the blueprint, but goaded the premier over Conservative attacks on ‘dodgy assumptions’

Tories have been attacking the 'dodgy assumptions' behind the government's roadmap

Tories have been attacking the ‘dodgy assumptions’ behind the government’s roadmap

In other coronavirus developments today:

  • France’s government said it wants to ‘rehabilitate’ the AstraZeneca vaccine as EU leaders try to undo the doubts they sowed about the jab which have led to low uptake despite its proven effectiveness;
  • Germany’s biggest-selling newspaper praised Britain’s vaccine success and Boris Johnson’s plans to lift the lockdown, with a front-page headline saying: ‘Dear Brits, we envy you!’;
  • Gavin Williamson promised pupils will finally get ‘granular detail’ about exam substitute plan as he prepares to unveil the new system tomorrow;
  • Britain might not have to ‘learn to live with Covid’ in the future because the current crop of vaccines are so effective, a top Government scientist expert claimed; 
  • Just one per cent of UK arrivals are going into hotel quarantine, the head of Border Force revealed.

Leading epidemiologist Prof Ferguson has suggested the easings could be ‘accelerated’ if infections do not rise too sharply.

Jonathan Van-Tam warns Covid jab manufacturers won’t deliver ‘steady’ supplies for a ‘few months’ 

Britain won’t get ‘steady’ supplies of coronavirus vaccines for a ‘few months’, one of the nation’s top health chiefs admitted today amid a clear slump in the UK’s roll-out – which must go smoothly for the nation to be released from lockdown.

Professor Jonathan Van-Tam, England’s deputy chief medical officer, described the process of manufacturing Covid jabs as being ‘a bit like beer-making’ because not every batch yields the same amount.

He told Sky News that supply fluctuations were natural, adding: ‘It’s going to take a few months before the manufacturers really get into this very confident, very steady manufacturing routine.’

His comments came after Education Secretary Gavin Williamson insisted there was ‘no problems in terms of the flow of vaccines’, saying that ‘there will always be some days’ when uptake dips.

Just 24 hours earlier Matt Hancock claimed that there were ‘ups and downs’ in the delivery schedule. The Health Secretary warned the speed of the roll-out was down to supply but claimed March would see some ‘bumper weeks’.

Officials say smaller deliveries were planned for in mid-February because Pfizer had to improve its key Belgian factory at the start of the year. AstraZeneca’s production was also slower to get off the ground than planned.

Both firms have since claimed their vaccine deliveries are on track, leaving ministers confident they can hit their ambitious target of offering first doses to all over-50s by April 15 and every adult by the end of July.

More than 18million Brits have already received a first dose and Boris Johnson has put a successful roll-out at the heart of his path back to freedom. As long as the drive goes well, all restrictions could be dropped in England by June 21 — but any hiccups along the way could threaten that target.

But fears that No10’s plans for freedom could be derailed grew this week after two poor performances in Britain’s roll-out. Just 150,000 doses were given out on Sunday, the worst in a month, and 210,000 the following day. 

However, today’s figures show there were 353,000 doses administered on Tuesday, in a sign the scheme might be picking back up.  But Tuesday’s output is still down 6 per cent on last week and there are on average 345,000 doses being administered each day, which is the lowest since mid January. 

He underlined his view today, although he told the Telegraph that it was unlikely to be clear whether the plan can be speeded up before May. That is the time when the Tory Covid Recovery Group wants all restrictions lifted. 

‘If any acceleration is possible, it is only likely to be potentially possible in May,’ Prof Ferguson said.

Tory MP Sir Desmond Swayne told MailOnline that Mr Johnson must open the door to bringing the roadmap schedule forward.

‘Where is the sense of urgency gone about limiting the damage we are doing to our economy and social life?

‘My frustration is that he said it would be data driven and then announced a series of not before dates. Those not before dates can be delayed, but there appears to be no scope to bring it forward.’

Sir Desmond said: ‘We are showing caution where we should be showing urgency. It is costing so much it is mind-boggling. ‘The number of pubs and restaurants and hotels that will go out of business before we get to the new dawn, it is too high a price to pay in my view.’

Sir Desmond said if the situation in hospitals improved it might ‘light a fire’ under the government to act faster.

‘I would think that as the statistics change… the appetite of the public will change,’ he said.

Professor Van-Tam strongly backed the timetable set out in the roadmap today.

‘The Government has laid out a pretty careful and pretty painstakingly cautious – but I think appropriate – road map to get us from where we are now to get us in stages – measured, careful stages – to where we want to be in the summer,’ he told Sky News.

He said the road map included five weeks between stages to measure the impact of relaxations due to the lag from people getting infected to needing hospital treatment.

‘If, for example, you react too quickly and say ‘oh, it’s all going marvellously, look, infection rates are coming down’ and you don’t wait for that lag to see what the impact is on hospitalisations and deaths, then you’re always at risk of getting it wrong and going too fast.

‘And we factored all of that in these carefully measured steps.’

Prof Van-Tam said he understood people’s frustrations with the pace of the road map.

He added: ‘I completely get it, I am desperate for the football to be back, but actually I would rather do this once and get it right and not have to make any U-turns or backtracking, I would rather just go slowly and steadily and get there in one go.’ 

Mr Johnson dismissed criticism about his roadmap on a visit to a school in South London today, saying: ‘Some people will say we’re going to be going too fast, some people will say we’re going too slow.’ 

The premier also refused to guarantee that all restrictions will definitely be lifted by June 21 as scheduled, but insisted he was ‘hopeful’ it can happen.  

Tories and business have been voicing disquiet about the ultra-cautious approach being taken by ministers, even though the vaccination drive has been surging ahead. 

Nicola Sturgeon lashes out at Boris’s ‘made up’ June 21 lockdown end date as she faces furious backlash over her vague plan for Scotland

Nicola Sturgeon today lashed out at Boris Johnson’s ‘made up’ June 21 lockdown end date as she faces a backlash over her vague plan for Scotland.

The SNP leader addressed the PM’s target date as she took her daily briefing after unveiling her own rival ‘roadmap’.

The blueprint, even more cautious in key respects than in England, sparked anger because it failed to give any schedules beyond April, and Ms Sturgeon has merely promised to give another update in mid-March.

But fending off criticism of her approach today the First Minister said she will not give any dates until she knows they are ‘real’.

‘If I was to give you a fixed, hard and fast date right now, I would pretty much be making it up and I don’t think that’s the approach I should take with you,’ she said.

‘I’m not ruling out any specific dates. I want it to be as soon as possible and we have every reason to be hopeful that come the summer life will be much, much, much better than it is just now, but when I stand here and give you what I think the actual date when all or most restrictions will come to an end is going to be, I want to be as sure as I can be that is real and it can be delivered.’

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.

Former chief whip Mark Harper, head of the 70-strong Covid Recovery Group of sceptical MPs, has complained that the models being used by the government are ‘flawed’.

He said ‘understating’ the reach of the vaccine rollout had resulted in the PM coming up with a plan that delays reopening the country two months longer than necessary. 

Meanwhile, Professor Van-Tam warned Britain won’t get ‘steady’ supplies of coronavirus vaccines for a ‘few months’.

He described the process of manufacturing Covid jabs as being ‘a bit like beer-making’ because not every batch yields the same amount.

He told Sky News that supply fluctuations were natural, adding: ‘It’s going to take a few months before the manufacturers really get into this very confident, very steady manufacturing routine.’

His comments came after Education Secretary Gavin Williamson insisted there was ‘no problems in terms of the flow of vaccines’, saying that ‘there will always be some days’ when uptake dips.

Just 24 hours earlier Matt Hancock claimed that there were ‘ups and downs’ in the delivery schedule. The Health Secretary warned the speed of the roll-out was down to supply but claimed March would see some ‘bumper weeks’.

Is summer 2021 SAVED? Reading and Leeds is first music festival to say it will go ahead

The Reading and Leeds Festival today became the first music event to confirm it will go ahead this summer, with the website crashing under a scramble to get tickets.

Those trying to buy passes or read up on the festival were met with a message saying: ‘Error establishing a database connection’ – but it later came back online.

It comes after Festival Republic confirmed that the double festival would take place at Little John’s Farm in Reading and Bramham Park in Leeds this year.

The event will take place on the August bank holiday weekend, which will be two months after Boris Johnson plans to lift all coronavirus restrictions.

It marks the first major summer event in Britain to be confirmed after the Prime Minister said on Monday that all Covid-19 rules are set to be dropped on June 21.

But major questions remain over whether those attending would need to have a Covid-19 test or show proof of vaccination before walking through the gate.

Officials say smaller deliveries were planned for in mid-February because Pfizer had to improve its key Belgian factory at the start of the year. AstraZeneca’s production was also slower to get off the ground than planned.

Both firms have since claimed their vaccine deliveries are on track, leaving ministers confident they can hit their ambitious target of offering first doses to all over-50s by April 15 and every adult by the end of July.

The AstraZeneca vaccine is a natural product – it is a genetically engineered virus made to look like the coronavirus – so must be grown naturally.

Greek island holidays as early as MAY? Athens considers plan to break from EU rules

Greek island holidays could be on the cards as soon as May as the country examines opening its borders early.

Greece is looking into whether it can give an early green light to British tourists who have received the vaccine.

The move would break from the rest of the European Union, which is pushing for a united and cautious approach to reopening non-essential travel from outside the bloc.

It comes as Greece has recorded a total of 182,783 Covid-19 cases and 6,343 deaths. Over the previous 24 hours, the country recorded 2,111 new cases and 22 new deaths.

The cells needed to make the jab will only reproduce as fast as they naturally can, and astronomical quantities of them are needed, which means the process will always take a minimum amount of time.

AstraZeneca says it takes three months, on average, to make each batch of the vaccine.

Numerous ones are made at the same time but this means that there is an upper limit to how much or how fast one plant can make jabs.

And the yields of these natural batches are also not entirely controllable – the company said it had not produced as much as it had hoped at the start of the production.

Professor Van-Tam reaffirmed the repeated claim that the dip in daily vaccine roll-out has come about as a result of a fall in supply.

He said: ‘That’s really very simple to explain. There are always going to be supply fluctuations. 

‘These are new vaccines and by and large the manufacturers have never made them or anything like them before. You do get batch size variations and that’s natural.

‘The process of making a vaccine is one where, basically, you set the equipment up and leave it all to do its thing – a bit like beer-making really.

‘What you get at the end is not something that you can say is identical every time in terms of the yield, the amount of doses you can then make from that batch.’

However, Professor Van-Tam said that the UK is in ‘a great place in the world’ despite global restraints and that he expects the rollout to pick up pace again.

Professor Van-Tam also admitted to concerns about the uptake of the vaccine within black and minority ethnic groups, as well as in deprived parts of the UK, which could be slowing the roll out.

‘I am concerned about it, I know there is hesitancy in some of the black and minority ethnic communities and I know it’s been an issue for decades that it is always more difficult to get high uptake of vaccines and other preventative healthcare services in areas of unfortunately low prosperity, high deprivation of the UK.

‘This is not a new problem but it is one that greatly concerns me because we need very high uptake.’

Professor Van-Tam said high uptake will ‘give us the best chance of moving from where we are now – which, let’s face it, is quite a bit better than where we were a month ago – to where we really want to be by the time the road map is complete in the early summer’.

He acknowledged there are ‘supply fluctuations’ for the vaccines and it could take ‘a few months’ for manufacturers to get into a steady routine for production.

Earlier, on ITV’s Good Morning Britain, Professor Van-Tam called for health and care workers to take the vaccines they have been offered.

NHS England has said around 88 per cent of patient-facing NHS Trust health care workers in England are likely to have had their first dose of a vaccine by now.

But there are no published vaccine uptake figures for people working in social care.

Professor Van-Tam said healthcare workers have a ‘professional responsibility to take steps themselves to prevent them from being in a position where they could harm patients through infectious diseases they might have’.

He added: ‘The other way of framing this is saying, if you’re a consumer of healthcare, if you’re a patient or a relative, would you prefer a healthcare worker to attend you or your relative if they have been vaccinated against Covid, or would you not really mind either way?’

He sought to reassure anyone wishing to become pregnant about the safety of vaccines, saying there is a lot of ‘nonsense out there’ about their supposed effects on fertility.

‘There’s just no evidence at all that there are any issues in relation to planning a family, or fertility,’ he said.

‘So if you’re in a risk condition and you’re called, then my advice would be to get on and take the vaccine.’


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