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PM says easing lockdown will be based on ‘cautious and prudent approach’

A patient is taken to an ambulance outside the Royal London Hospital in London during England's third national lockdown to curb the spread of coronavirus. Pic by Ian West

By Emma Bowden, Adam Hale and David Hughes, PA

Boris Johnson said easing England’s lockdown will be based on a “cautious and prudent approach”, as he was urged to focus on data rather than dates when lifting restrictions.

The Prime Minister stressed that any easing of restrictions needs to be done in stages and said that his road map out of lockdown on Monday will be done in a way that ensures it is “irreversible”.

Mr Johnson was asked whether he agrees with Professor Dame Angela McLean’s comments to the Commons Science and Technology Committee that any unlocking should be based on “data, not dates”.

Speaking to reporters from a mass vaccination centre in Cwmbran, South Wales, the Prime Minister said: “I do think that’s absolutely right.

“That’s why we’ll be setting out what we can on Monday about the way ahead and it’ll be based firmly on a cautious and prudent approach to coming out of lockdown in such a way to be irreversible.”

Mr Johnson said easing restrictions should be done “cautiously” as he noted that hospitality was one of the last sectors to reopen after the first lockdown.

“I know there’s a lot of understandable speculation in the papers and people coming up with theories about what we’re going to do, what we’re going to say, and about the rates of infection, and so on,” he told reporters.

“I would just advise everybody just wait, we’ll try and say as much as we can on that.”

Giving evidence to the Commons Science and Technology Committee, Prof McLean, chief scientific adviser at the Ministry of Defence, was asked if the R level needs to be at a certain level before restrictions can be eased.

“I think the timing is probably more important; it’s how many of the people who are more at risk of – that’s a mixture of old people or people with underlying conditions – have been vaccinated before we do more unlocking,” she said.

“The important issue is to really watch very closely what is happening, so if infections start to increase, and that we do everything we can to decide whether it is a good moment to take another step in unlocking.

“Let’s use data, not dates.”

Earlier on Wednesday, NHS Providers chief executive Chris Hopson struck a similar tone and urged Mr Johnson to focus on “data, not just dates”.

He warned that the number of coronavirus infections needs to plummet to under 50,000 before any easing can be considered.

The most recent figures suggest that 695,400 people in England had Covid-19 in the week ending February 6, and Mr Hopson said there is a “pretty clear view” that “that number needs to come down to around 50,000”.

The organisation has set out four “tests” which should guide easing: getting case numbers down, reducing pressure on the NHS, further strides in the vaccination programme, and an effective strategy to control future outbreaks.

“If you look at where we are against those four tests, each one of them tells you that we’re still some way away from being able to start relaxing restrictions,” Mr Hopson told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme.

“We had 500 Covid patients in hospitals in September and yet, 15 weeks later, we had 34,000 patients, and we were perilously close to overwhelmed.

“So, what that says to you is that you just need to be really careful before you start relaxing the restrictions prematurely.”

It came as:

– The Reform think tank predicted that waiting lists could hit 10 million by April, equivalent to one in six people in England, as referrals for non-Covid cases begin to resume but limits on NHS capacity remain.

– Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab called for ceasefires in war zones around the world to enable the rollout of coronavirus vaccines.

– Surge testing is to be deployed in parts of Norfolk, Southampton and Woking, Surrey, where the South African Covid-19 variant has been found, and expanded in Manchester.

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