Boris Johnson is facing pressure to speed up the nation’s exit from lockdown after he suggested pubs, bars and restaurants will be the final parts of the economy allowed to fully reopen amid a growing Tory backlash.
The Prime Minister said his roadmap, which he will unveil on Monday, will be ‘based firmly on a cautious and prudent approach’ to ease restrictions in ‘such a way as to be irreversible’.
It is thought the document will not allow the hospitality sector to get back to normal until July, a prospect which immediately sparked Conservative anger, with the PM under growing pressure from his backbenches to scrap restrictions as quickly as possible.
Mr Johnson appeared to confirm during a visit to a Welsh vaccination centre that punters face a long wait before they can take a typical trip to a bar or restaurant.
He pointed to the approach taken to easing lockdown last year and said ‘we opened up hospitality fully as one of the last things that we did because there is obviously an extra risk of transmission from hospitality’.
It is thought lockdown rules could be eased at four-weekly intervals after a ‘limited’ loosening at the Easter holiday, with the hospitality sector likely having to wait until early May for the green light to resume restricted trading.
But Tory MPs are adamant venues should be able to immediately resume trading on Covid-secure terms at Easter, labelling the prospect of lockdown rules still being in place as late as July as ‘ridiculous’ and arguing it would be impossible to justify if the vaccine roll-out continues its success.
Meanwhile, some scientists have questioned the slow speed of the reopening, arguing that the current data actually suggests measures could be lifted more rapidly.
Mark Woolhouse, professor of infectious disease epidemiology at the University of Edinburgh, said the vaccine roll-out and the protection provided by the jabs means ‘if you’re driven by the data and not by dates, right now, you should be looking at earlier unlocking’.
The PM’s comments came amid claims that the Government will not agree to a major easing of lockdown restrictions until new daily coronavirus case numbers are below 1,000, prompting accusations from Tory MPs of ‘moving the goalposts’.
Daily cases are currently above 10,000 and on the current trajectory they may not dip to three figures until April and that is before taking into account the potential impact on rate of infection of schools returning next month.
A senior Whitehall source told The Telegraph: ‘For any significant relaxation of lockdown, household mixing and reopening of pubs, case numbers have to be in the hundreds, not thousands.’
NHS Providers, which represents hospital trusts in England, echoed a similar sentiment as it claimed case numbers will need to be 14 times lower than they are currently before lockdown can be lifted and all over-50s should receive both doses of a coronavirus vaccine first.
However, Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab distanced the Government from the hundreds of daily cases target as he said ‘there is no single cast-iron formula or one particular indicator that above all other considerations can decide this’.
The blueprint being discussed by ministers and industry leaders would allow restrictions to be eased only at four-weekly intervals. The gradual approach means traders would have to wait until at least Easter – early April – for a limited restart.
This is likely to include the reopening of holiday lets and larger hotels, with dining rooms still closed. Sports such as golf and tennis could resume. Pubs, bars and restaurants will have to wait until early May under the plans, with a maximum of two households allowed to sit together indoors and the rule of six applying outside.
The next stage, in early June, would see the rules for pubs and restaurants relaxed with the rule of six extended indoors. The hospitality and domestic holiday industries could be allowed to return to normal in July – with social distancing.
The latest roadmap news came as it was claimed that the Government will soon unveil a mass-testing campaign which would see 400,000 rapid tests posted to homes and workplaces everyday.
Ministers hope the campaign, with the slogan ‘Are you ready? Get testing. Go’ will launch before schools reopen on March 8 and will help to get life back to normal.