The Prime Minister is poised to allow more social mixing within weeks, providing a light at the end of the tunnel for millions of grandparents isolated from their grandchildren.
A Whitehall source said rules around how many people they can spend time with outdoors will be relaxed. Ministers are looking at the data and a final decision on when the restrictions will be eased will be taken at the weekend.
It means friends and family could be able to see each other again in time for the Easter holidays. The Prime Minister will spend the weekend putting the finishing touches to his long-awaited roadmap, before he announces it on Monday.
In other coronavirus news:
- Matt Hancock unlawfully failed to publish details of billions of pounds’ worth of coronavirus-related contracts, the High Court has ruled;
- The Government was forced to deny last night that Chris Whitty felt ‘very unhappy’ about plans for a ‘big bang’ reopening of schools on March 8;
- Care home residents will be allowed to hold hands with loved ones again from March 8 in one of the first steps out of lockdown, it was revealed;
- Britain recorded another 12,027 coronavirus cases and 533 deaths, as an array of official data confirmed the second wave is still firmly in retreat;
- Britain will be ‘a lot more normal’ by May even if Boris Johnson adopts a cautious roadmap for easing, one of the Government’s leading scientific experts said.
- Families and friends will be reunited by Easter as up to two people from different households can meet outside, Boris Johnson is likely to announce as part of his ‘roadmap’ out of lockdown.
The Prime Minister (pictured) is poised to allow more social mixing within weeks, providing a light at the end of the tunnel for millions of grandparents isolated from their grandchildren
A Whitehall source said rules around how many people they can spend time with outdoors will be relaxed. Ministers are looking at the data and a final decision on when the restrictions will be eased will be taken at the weekend. Pictured, people out in Scotland last July
It is thought the new plan could replace the ‘Rule of Six’ as entire families, regardless of size, are expected to be allowed to meet up in outside spaces.
From April, two households would be able to meet outdoors from April while gatherings of six people from six different households would also be acceptable.
Mr Johnson is set to meet senior ministers tomorrow to hammer out the final details. The committee will examine the latest data on the impact of lockdown and the vaccine rollout, so they can decide how quickly to lift restrictions.
Cabinet will then rubber stamp the plans on Monday morning, before they are revealed to the Commons that afternoon.
The blueprint is likely to see schools return on March 8 along with more relaxed rules on outdoor exercise; the return of outdoor sports like golf and tennis at the end of next month and non-essential shops opening soon after Easter. Pubs and restaurants may also be able to serve people outdoors from April – although not indoors until May.
The Government was last night forced to deny that Chris Whitty feels ‘very unhappy’ about plans for a ‘big bang’ reopening of schools on March 8.
Downing Street knocked down claims the chief medical officer has concerns a full return – rather than a staggered approach call for by unions – will cause a spike in infections.
Prime Minister Boris Johnson has made clear his ambition for all 10 million schoolchildren and staff to return on March 8. The children would be tested for coronavirus twice a week.
But education sources told The Guardian Mr Whitty was ‘very unhappy’ with the plan. Some officials are concerned a mass return will both rise infection rates and pose problems with administering covid tests to pupils.
Both ministers and senior advisers want Mr Whitty to publicly back a full return, but he is said to be ‘lukewarm’.
A Department for Education source last night branded the claim ‘absolute b******t’. A government source also said the claim was ‘categorically untrue’.
SAGE have modelled the impact of sending all children back to school at once, against a staggered year-by-year approach.
It means friends and family could be able to see each other again in time for the Easter holidays. The Prime Minister will spend the weekend putting the finishing touches to his long-awaited roadmap, before he announces it on Monday (file image)
Haris Theoharis, the Greek tourism minister, said that vaccination passports and mass testing could allow for a ‘semi-normal summer’ (file image)
They believe that sending all children back to school at once will inevitably lead to a slightly bigger rise in the R value than only a smaller number of children.
Five-minute covid test could spark opening of nightclubs, gigs and cinemas
Nightclubs, theatres and sporting events could reopen thanks to a five-minute coronavirus test, scientists have revealed.
Yorkshire biotech firm Avacta has developed a rapid test that could pave the way for the so-called Operation Moonshot, reported the Huffington Post.
The operation is a plan to reopen thousands of clubs and theatres across Britain.
The new Avacta test has more rapid and accurate results than the American devices currently in use.
Boris Johnson is already set to announce the use of lateral flow tests, which take 30 minutes, in his roadmap to reopen Britain.
But these five-minute devices could make entry to venues much quicker.
However, Government scientists have stressed that it is up to ministers to weigh up these risks against the well-being of children.
Officials including Mr Whitty have repeatedly stressed the immense damage to children of staying at home target than being at school.
The slow opening is likely to anger hospitality chiefs who have demanded an accelerated lifting of restrictions, given the success of the vaccine rollout. It is as yet unclear when domestic staycations or travel around Britain will be allowed to resume. However, the First Minister of Wales raised the prospect that these could be possible as soon as Easter yesterday, saying that self-catering accommodation could be re-opened in the principality.
Mark Drakeford said allowing people to rent out self-contained accommodation would be a big boost to the tourism industry.
He said that following a meeting with tourism bosses yesterday, he was hoping to relax some measures ‘around the Easter period’.
He told the BBC Radio 4 Today programme: ‘The most that we would be doing would be the reopening of self-contained accommodation where there aren’t shared facilities and there isn’t social mixing.
‘But if we could do that – and six weeks is a very long time in this business – if we could do that in six weeks’ time, I know that would be a boost to the industry and a big boost to hundreds of thousands of families in Wales for whom going down [to] the caravan for a few days for a break would be a very welcome prospect.’
Meanwhile there are also indications that Britons may yet be able to go on foreign holidays this summer. The Government is considering internationally recognised vaccination passports that will allow people to travel and is in talks with holiday destinations such as Greece about how they will work.
The roadmap is not expected to include a timeline for easing restrictions on holidays.
One Government source said: ‘It’s looking increasingly positive on summer holidays. Once the vaccination passport system is set up it should be straightforward. That won’t be easy, but we can see the way ahead.’
Foreign Office minister James Cleverly said no firm decisions had been taken but ‘we will speak to international partners about what they may require and respect that’. He told the BBC: ‘It would be wrong for me to start speculating now. We are assessing the numbers, we are making a judgment based on the science and we will be making an announcement on Monday. I can’t go further than that.’
Haris Theoharis, the Greek tourism minister, said that vaccination passports and mass testing could allow for a ‘semi-normal summer’.
The aviation industry are expecting a task force to be announced to come up with a plan for when international travel could be re-started. An industry source said: ‘I think that provides the Government the ability to say we’ve heard aviation, while telling the public, we’re not moving too fast here.
‘What’s frustrating for us is we’ve been trying to do our part to support the Government but we’ve been getting very little support back.’
Government denies Chris Whitty was ‘very unhappy’ about schools reopening in March
The Government was forced to deny last night that Chris Whitty felt ‘very unhappy’ about plans for a ‘big bang’ reopening of schools on March 8.
Downing Street knocked down claims that the chief medical officer had concerns that a full return – rather than the staggered approach called for by unions – would cause a spike in infections.
Boris Johnson has made it clear that he wants all ten million schoolchildren and staff to return on March 8.
But education sources told The Guardian Mr Whitty was ‘very unhappy’ with this.
Downing Street knocked down claims that the chief medical officer had concerns that a full return – rather than the staggered approach called for by unions – would cause a spike in infections. Pictured, Chris Whitty
Some officials fear a mass return will increase infection rates and create problems administering pupils’ Covid tests.
Ministers and senior advisers want Mr Whitty to back a full return publicly, but he is said to be ‘lukewarm’.
Last night, a Department for Education source branded the claim ‘absolute b******t’, and a Government source also said it was ‘categorically untrue’.
The Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage), which advises the Government, has modelled the impact of sending all children back at once against a staggered, year-by-year approach.
It believes the first option will lead to a bigger rise in the so-called ‘R value’ – which measures how quickly the virus will spread. But it insists ministers must weigh up the risks against pupils’ wellbeing.
Officials including Mr Whitty have repeatedly stressed the damage to children of being forced to stay at home.
The Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage), which advises the Government, has modelled the impact of sending all children back at once against a staggered, year-by-year approach. Pictured, children arriving at Manor Park School in Cheshire last month
Unions want a phased return. Nine organisations representing teachers, heads, support staff and governors united to warn against the Prime Minister’s plan. They said getting all children back at once on March 8 seemed a ‘reckless action’ that could ‘trigger another spike in Covid infections, prolong the disruption of education and risk throwing away hard-won progress made in suppressing the virus’.
In a statement, they called on the Prime Minister to only commit to the March 8 date if the scientific evidence was ‘absolutely clear that this is safe’, and he should ‘go no further than a phased return’.
Mr Johnson is due to set out a roadmap out of lockdown on Monday. But Geoff Barton, of the Association of School and College Leaders, wrote on the Times Educational Supplement website to urge caution rather than ‘risking a big bang that could blow up in our faces’.
A Department for Education spokesman said: ‘Schools are the best place for young people’s education, development and wellbeing. Pupils will return from March 8 at the earliest.’
You can hold granny’s hand from March 8: One friend or relative will be allowed to visit care home if they test negative for coronavirus
By Eleanor Hayward and Daniel Martin for The Daily Mail
Care home residents will be allowed to hold hands with loved ones again from March 8 in one of the first steps out of lockdown.
Ministers will unveil guidance allowing indoor visits – but hugs and kisses will still be banned.
All care home residents will have the right to see one named relative or friend who tests negative for Covid-19 and wears PPE.
Guests will be able to help with essential tasks such as eating, dressing or washing. They will be allowed to hold hands but other ‘close contact’ will not yet be allowed.
Care home residents will be allowed to hold hands with loved ones again from March 8 in one of the first steps out of lockdown
Last night Health Secretary Matt Hancock said: ‘I know these curbs on social contact have been so hard for people who live in care homes and their loved ones
All care home residents will have the right to see one named relative or friend who tests negative for Covid-19 and wears PPE
The mother and son torn apart by Covid
Patricia Greaves doesn’t understand why her son can see her only through a window.
Before the pandemic, the ‘vibrant and lively’ 73-year-old would regularly go for walks along the Brighton seafront near her care home.
Her son Jamie would visit her every day after work, doing her hair and nails and giving her a hug.
But they’ve been torn apart for the past year, and her health – she has dementia – has rapidly deteriorated.
Patricia Greaves (pictured right) doesn’t understand why her son can see her only through a window. Her son Jamie (left) would visit her every day after work, doing her hair and nails and giving her a hug
Mr Greaves, 50, said: ‘I’ve not seen her properly since March. My only option is a window visit or behind a screen indoors. Sometimes she just cries because I can’t come in.
‘She’ll try to break through the screen. She just keeps saying “I want you with me”. I used to see her every day.
‘I have noticed a very big deterioration. She is struggling with speech.
‘Her appearance is very different. She used to be very glamorous and took a lot of pride in her physical appearance.
‘Her physical ability and strength has deteriorated, she seems a lot slower.
‘And her personality has changed – I used to always be able to get a smile out of her but now I can’t.’
The guidance follows ‘a year of torture’ for residents who have been unable to see loved ones due to visiting bans.
Meaningful care home visits restarted briefly in December following a major Daily Mail campaign that led to the roll-out of rapid tests for visitors. But indoor visits without a screen were paused again for the third national lockdown.
Last night Health Secretary Matt Hancock said: ‘I know these curbs on social contact have been so hard for people who live in care homes and their loved ones.
‘Because of the reduction in cases, the widespread availability of testing, and the protections care homes have put in place, we’re now in a position very carefully to start relaxing some of the restrictions that we’ve had to put in place.
‘Working with the best clinical expertise, we’ve developed a scheme that will allow a single named visitor to make repeat visits to care homes, with strict infection control procedures so we can continue to keep our care homes as safe as possible.
‘We will provide free lateral flow tests and PPE, to help these visits take place with maximum safety, and restore some of the social contact that I know people have been yearning for.
‘We also know that outdoors is safer, so as well as having one regular indoor visitor, residents will also be allowed to have extra visitors outdoors. I know how much this will mean, especially as the nights get longer and the weather warms up.
‘This is an important step in bringing loved ones together once again.’
Some homes have had blanket bans in place since last March, putting tens of thousands of elderly and vulnerable people at risk of death from loneliness and isolation.
Currently families can only see each other through a window, glass screen or outdoors. The new guidance will allow one relative or friend only to visit.
Professor Deborah Sturdy, chief nurse for adult social care, said: ‘I know how much people want to visit, hug and kiss their loved ones but doing so can put lives at risk so we would ask people to continue to follow the rules.’
Care minister Helen Whately said: ‘As we begin to open up we will move step by step to increase visits while remembering we are still in the grip of a global pandemic.’
Campaigners say the guidance should be matched by a change in the law that would make it illegal for care home providers to impose blanket visiting bans.
Jenny Morrison, of the Rights for Residents campaign, said: ‘This is a positive first step and it’s good to see the Government are listening. This will really help people who have been unable to see their loved ones at all.
‘But we know from experience that many care homes are terrified of opening their doors. Unless there is legislation to back up the new guidance it’s difficult to see how the situation will have changed. Care providers can still choose to lock their doors.’
Draft legislation, drawn up by the Joint Committee on Human Rights and backed by the Labour Party, would give relatives the legal status as ‘essential family carers’ and make outright bans illegal. Liz Kendall, Labour care spokesman, said: ‘The scandal of blanket bans on families seeing their loved ones in care homes must end.
‘Labour has been calling since June for relatives to be treated as key workers, with the same access to protective equipment and testing as staff.’
Britain’s Covid outbreak continues to shrink: UK records another 12,027 cases plunging by 20% in a week and deaths fall by a third to 533 – as R rate drops to lowest EVER rate and could be just 0.6
By Luke Andrews Health Reporter for MailOnline
Britain yesterday recorded another 12,027 coronavirus cases and 533 deaths, as an array of official data confirmed the second wave is still firmly in retreat and piled further pressure on Boris Johnson to drastically ease restrictions in the coming weeks.
Department of Health data showed infections had fallen by 20 per cent week-on-week, and the number of victims of the disease plunged by a third. In other promising news, almost 17million Britons have now also received their first dose of a Covid vaccine.
It comes as No10’s top scientific advisers today predicted Britain’s R rate – the average number of people each coronavirus patient passes the disease on to – was between 0.6 and 0.9. Last week it stood at 0.7 to 0.9 and two weeks ago they warned it could be above the crucial level of one, suggesting the second wave was stable.
Separate figures from one of the UK’s most respected coronavirus surveillance studies showed the number of people infected in England has fallen by nearly 50 per cent in the last fortnight.
Office for National Statistics (ONS) experts estimated 481,300 people in the nation would test positive for Covid on any given day in the week to February 12 – the equivalent of one in 115 people. For comparison, the figure was around 850,000 two weeks ago.
And in yet more proof that the second wave is firmly in retreat, hospitals are now also treating fewer coronavirus patients than they were during the darkest days of the first wave last spring. The number of NHS beds taken up by Covid-infected Britons has halved since January to around 20,000.
The catalogue of promising data – combined with Britain’s successful vaccine roll-out – will pile more pressure on Mr Johnson to drastically ease restrictions when he unveils his roadmap back to normality on Monday. Anti-lockdown Tory MPs have urged the PM to scrap economically-crippling measures as quickly as possible.
The Prime Minister has promised to rely on ‘data not dates’ in his blueprint to leaving lockdown, amid hopes the UK may never need another blanket shutdown to contain Covid and that life could be a ‘lot more normal’ by May. Pubs and restaurants will likely be the final parts of the economy allowed to fully reopen under the cautious approach.
But even SAGE scientists – who have offered gloomy predictions throughout the pandemic – have admitted the data is pointing in the right direction. One epidemiologist advising No10 told MPs that ministers should be looking at easing restrictions earlier, if they were truly following the evidence.
But other researchers tracking the UK’s shrinking second wave have flagged it may now no longer be dropping as rapidly as it once was. The King’s College London symptom-tracking app estimated there were 14,064 new symptomatic infections every day during the week ending February 14 – just 5 per cent down in a week.
The ONS infection survey estimated 481,300 people in England would have tested positive for the virus on any given day in the week to February 12, a dip of 30 per cent compared to the same time last week
But separate data from the ZOE Covid Symptom Study app suggested cases have plateaued. It said there were 14,064 new infections a day in the UK in the second week of February, a drop of just five per cent compared to the last seven-day spell. Their app can only pick up symptomatic infections, and not those with no warning signs thought to account for at least a third of all cases
The ONS also showed Covid infections had dropped in Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland compared to the previous week
And every region in England was also seeing infections continuing to fall in the week to February 12
Infections are now lowest among those aged over 70. But it is not clear whether this is due to the vaccine, with scientists saying they are only starting to see early signs of the jabs ‘doing their job’ in some areas
Public Health England data published revealed Covid cases had plunged in all but two regions of England in the second week of February. They only rose in Tameside, Greater Manchester, and North East Lincolnshire
WHAT IS THE R RATE IN MY AREA? SAGE SCIENTISTS SAY IT IS BELOW ONE IN BRITAIN
Source: These figures are from Sage scientists. They show that as the R number – measuring the spread of the disease – is below one, the outbreak is shrinking across the country.
East of England
North East, Yorkshire
R Rate (% daily drop)
0.6 to 0.9 (-6% to -3%)
0.7 to 0.9 (-6% to -3%)
0.6 to 0.8 (-7% to -4%)
0.6 to 0.8 (-8% to -5%)
0.6 to 0.9 (-7% to -3%)
0.7 to 1.0 (-5% to -1%)
0.6 to 0.9 (-7% to -3%)
0.6 to 0.8 (-9% to -5%)
0.6 to 0.9 (-7% to -3%)
Department of Health data also revealed the infection rate dropped below 50 cases per 100,000 residents in Devon in the week ending February 14, the latest date available, after it fell to 46.1 per 100,000.
The infection rate is below this level in 10 areas of England – Mid-Suffolk, Rother, Torridge, West Devon, South Hampshire, North Devon, Tonbridge and Malling, Plymouth, Canterbury, North Norfolk and West Oxfordshire – as infections continue to fall.
The lowest levels are in Torridge, Devon, where there is an average of 14.6 per 100,000.
It comes as Sage scientists said the R rate remained below one, marking a clear signal the second wave is firmly in retreat.
When the R rate is at this level it indicates not everyone infected with the virus is passing it on to someone else, triggering a reduction in the size of the outbreak.
The rate was lowest in London, the East of England and the South East, where it had fallen to between 0.6 and 0.9.
But they warned it may have ticked up as high as 1 in the North East and Yorkshire, which suggests the number of cases in the region may no longer be shrinking. Sage scientists still said, however, they thought infections were dropping by between one and five per cent a day in the area.
The ONS infection survey estimated the number of infections in the UK using random swabbing carried out on more than 100,000 Britons.
The measure is seen as the gold-standard by ministers because it can pick up asymptomatic infections, that are missed by testing, and also account for those that don’t come forward for a swab because they do not want to be asked to self-isolate.
Across the country it found the positivity rate – the proportion of all swabs estimated that would be positive – was highest in Northern Ireland, where it was 0.97 per cent – equivalent to 1 in 105 people having Covid.
It was second highest in England where 0.88 per cent would test positive, equivalent to 1 in 115 people. And third highest in Wales with a rate at 0.81 per cent, equal to 1 in 125. Scotland had the lowest positivity rate in the UK at 0.55 per cent, equivalent to 1 in 180.
The ONS also predicted the infection rate across the country was lowest among those aged over 70, who are most at risk of hospitalisation or death if they catch the virus. It is not clear whether this is due to the rollout, but scientists say they are starting to see the first signs in data that the jabs are ‘doing their job’ by preventing infections and transmission.
The second lowest rate was among children aged seven to 11. Boris Johnson is under mounting pressure to allow pupils to get back behind their desks soon, and will unveil his ‘roadmap’ back to normal on Monday.
The Kent variant of the virus was also still the dominant strain across the UK, and in all four nations. There are now more than 200 cases of the South African variant – which can make jabs less effective – in the country, and ministers are attempting to snuff out the outbreaks by testing everyone in postcodes where they were detected.
The ZOE Covid symptom study app said cases had plateaued compared to last week. Its estimate is based on reports from more than a million Britons on whether they feel unwell and have had a Covid test
They said infections had risen slightly among 20 to 39 year olds, but were still falling among the over 60s
EXPERTS BELIEVE UK MAY BE A LOT MORE NORMAL BY MAY
Professor Neil Ferguson, from Imperial College London, said that gradually easing measures could still result in the UK being a ‘very different country’ within months.
Professor Adam Finn, from the University of Bristol and a member of the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation (JCVI), also struck an optimistic tone as he said ‘everything’s moving in the right direction’ on the jab rollout.
The interventions came as Boris Johnson prepares to hammer out the final version of his lockdown exit strategy over the weekend before unveiling it on Monday.
The Prime Minister is now said to be in receipt of all the latest data relating to the pandemic and the vaccine rollout which will underpin his plan of action.
Mr Johnson has said he wants the current national shutdown to be the last but Foreign Office Minister James Cleverly this morning admitted that cannot be guaranteed.
Prof Ferguson told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme that even with a cautious approach life could be very different by May as he said data on falling infection levels and the efficacy of the jabs is ‘looking promising at the moment’.
Asked whether the vaccine rollout could allow the PM to take bigger risks when it comes to reopening society, he said: ‘I think the downside in taking bigger risks is you risk having to lockdown again which is even more disruptive economically and socially.
‘So… I am encouraged by the cautious approach being taken and the incremental approach which I think will be adopted, namely relax one thing, see what that impact is, relax again.
‘It still may well be that by the end of May we are in a very different country than we are today.’
Top Sage advisers have warned the UK needs to get its Covid case levels down to just 10,000 infections before Boris Johnson should begin to reopen society.
Professor Kevin McConway, a statistician at the Open University, said the drops in the R rate and ONS figures were ‘more good news on top of a week of good news’. He added, however: ‘There is still a long way to go. Vaccinations will help more and more, but things are nowhere near back to normal yet and won’t be for a long time.’
Amid more promising statistics, Department of Health data on Covid hospital occupancy has fallen below the levels seen during the darkest days of the first wave. Some 20,156 beds were taken up by Covid patients on February 16, the latest date available. For comparison, there were 21,000 Covid patients needing treatment on the worst days of the first wave in April last year.
In intensive cares, the numbers have also fallen as there were 2,614 patients requiring mechanical ventilation on Wednesday, compared to 4,077 on January 25.
Saffron Cordery, deputy chief executive of NHS Providers, told The Times that the country was at a ‘critical juncture’, with hospital staff ‘exhausted’. She urged Boris Johnson to wait for a ‘return to more normal levels of NHS capacity’ before lifting restrictions.
‘Lessons must be learnt from the past year if this is to be the last national lockdown,’ she added.
Mr Johnson is set to unveil his ‘roadmap’ for exiting lockdown on Monday, with primary and secondary schools set to be the first places to reopen. It is expected that restaurants and pubs will be last on the list, and may have to wait until May before they can pull up the shutters.
But Education Unions are set to derail the plans, insisting it would be ‘reckless’ to allow all pupils to return to school by March 8 and ministers should instead bring them back in stages.
This is despite Covid cases being revealed on Wednesday to have tumbled to the lowest levels since September among school-age children, and to have dropped in 147 of 149 English local authorities – 98 per cent – in the second week of February.
The Prime Minister has indicated he will be led by the data not dates during the reopening, and could slam the brakes onto the plans if cases started to surge again.
It comes amid warnings the downturn in the second wave could be slowing, after Department of Health data showed on Wednesday that cases dropped by 2.3 per cent in a week.
Amid the promising statistics, however, the ZOE Covid Symptom Study app has also warned cases may have started to plateau across the UK.
It added the R rate – measuring the spread of the disease – may have risen to 1 in Yorkshire, the East Midlands and the North East as well as as well as Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, suggesting the second wave is no longer shrinking in these areas.
They estimated the areas with the highest infection rates were Lancashire, Blackpool and Blackburn with Darwen where 1 in 277 residents was thought to have the virus. They were followed by Greater Manchester, with 1 in 287 and the Liverpool City region with 1 in 337.
The app relies on daily reports from more than a million Britons on whether they are feeling unwell, and whether they have tested positive for the virus. But it is only able to pick up infections that are symptomatic, and cannot detect those that don’t trigger warning signs – thought to be at least a third of all cases.
Boris Johnson will unveil his eagerly-awaited lockdown exit strategy on Monday next week, with schools expected to be the first places given the green light to start reopening
ONLY HALF OF COVID APPOINTMENTS ARE TAKEN UP AT MASS CENTRE IN MANCHESTER
Only half of appointments for Covid vaccines are being taken up at Manchester’s mass vaccination centre, it was revealed as Andy Burnham urged ministers to expand the roll-out to younger age groups so precious doses don’t go unused.
The mayor of Greater Manchester warned jabs are just ‘sitting in fridges’ at the Etihad Stadium’s hub, and said that he fears the situation was similar at some of the other 89 mass jabbing locations across the country.
Mr Burnham claimed too many elderly residents – who are in the top priority groups because their age makes them more vulnerable to the coronavirus – were opting to wait for appointments at local clinics, rather than booking at the major centres.
The former Labour health secretary, who has publicly spoke of his ambitions of leading the party and has been a vocal critic of No10 for their handling of the pandemic, BBC Radio 4’s Today programme: ‘Strictly proceeding by age as the Government is doing at the moment is leading to a massive underuse of resources.
‘When people are getting the letter, as people in the 65-70 age group have got recently, saying ‘do you want to go to the regional centre at Etihad or do you want to wait to go local?’, most people are going local. That is leading to a situation where we’ve got plenty of slots that are just going unfilled.
‘So our message to the Government is why not open up the mass vaccination centre to a younger, more mobile cohort who then can go and use that and free up then more slots at the primary care level for people who might struggle to get to the regional centre.’
Wales has already began inviting over-50s, while some parts of England have began jabbing people in their early sixties. Despite a handful of areas storming ahead, parts of London have yet to dish out first doses to two thirds of over-70s. Health chiefs fear vaccine hesitancy among black, Asian and ethnic minority (BAME) groups is behind the poorer uptake in the capital’s culturally diverse boroughs.
Britain is in a race against time to dish out as many first doses to as many over-50s as possible before the end of March, when millions of second jabs must be administered en masse. Ministers are unlikely to ease draconian restrictions drastically until the majority are inoculated.
So long as the mammoth operation stays at the current speed, the UK could offer jabs to all 32million vulnerable Britons before the end of March. But not everyone will get vaccinated, meaning No10 may be able to expand the roll-out even sooner.
The Mail today revealed that Britons as young as 40 could be offered a jab when phase two of the roll-out is finished. Government advisers are set to recommend the next phase of the operation continues on the basis of age, rather than prioritising key workers.
Professor Tim Spector, a top epidemiologist who leads the app, said the fall in infections has begun to ‘plateau’ compared to the last six weeks where it plummeted.
‘This is mainly true in places like Scotland, Wales, and the Midlands compared to London and the East,’ he said. ‘It’s unclear why this is happening, although people relaxing their guard after vaccination or altering behaviour in the cold weather are possible.
‘But it’s encouraging that Covid-related hospital admissions are still falling and much lower than at the peak. With cases still falling in the at-risk age groups and the vaccination roll out continuing there is still reason to be hopeful – but we clearly can’t be complacent.’
The King’s College London scientist also called on the NHS to expand its list of Covid symptoms – high temperature, continuous cough and loss of taste and smell – to ensure that as many cases are detected as possible.
At present, only those suffering the three key warning signs are encouraged to get a test. But mountains of research has shown the virus can trigger many other symptoms in the early stages, including fatigue, diarrhoea and a sore or white tongue.
‘We are pushing for the list to be expanded to help us pick up more cases and drive down the number of cases,’ he said. ‘It’s also important for any new variants that may cause different symptoms. For us, the message for the public is clear: If you’re feeling newly unwell, it could be Covid and you should get a test.’
It comes as data from the Department of Health shows the number of Covid patients in hospital has nearly halved since January. Almost 40,000 beds were taken up by the infected during the peak of the second wave last month.
And the number of patients on ventilation beds has also plunged by 36 per cent in a month.
Saffron Cordery, deputy chief executive of NHS Providers, told The Times that the country was at a ‘critical juncture’, with hospital staff ‘exhausted’.
She urged Boris Johnson to wait for ‘a return to more normal levels of NHS capacity’ before lifting restrictions.
She said: ‘Lessons must be learnt from the past year if this is to be the last national lockdown.’
Some 2,614 patients requiring intensive care on mechanical ventilation beds on Wednesday, compared to 4,077 on January 25.
Public Health England’s data on Wednesday showed the infection rate among children aged 10 to 19 was at 86.2 per 100,000 in the second week of February, the latest available.
This is below every week since the seven-day spell ending September 26, when it was 53.4 per 100,000.
Public Health England’s medical director Yvonne Doyle said: ‘Our efforts are working as case rates, hospitalisation rates and deaths are slowly falling.
‘The number of new infections is higher than the end of September and remains concerning.
‘This could increase very quickly if we do not follow the current measures. Although it is difficult, we must continue to stay home and protect lives.’
Covid cases also dropped in every age group and plunged by 38 per cent among the over-80s – who are most at risk of being hospitalised or dying if they catch the virus – to 129.6 per 100,000.
The infection rate was highest in 30 to 39-year-olds (192.5 per 100,000), followed by 20 to 29-year-olds (173.4 per 100,000) and 40 to 49-year-olds (162.9 per 100,000).