Covid-19: Johnson targets easing of restrictions from March 8th

Visitors to England from ‘red list’ of 22 countries will have to quarantine in a hotel

British prime minister Boris Johnson: “Reopening schools must be our national priority and the first sign of normality beginning to return should be pupils going back to their classrooms.” Photograph: Geoff Pugh

England's lockdown will remain in place until at least March 8th but Boris Johnson told MPs that he hopes to publish a detailed plan next month to unwind the restrictions after that.

“That plan will, of course, depend on the continued success of our vaccination programme, the capacity of the NHS [National Health Service], and on deaths falling at the pace we would expect as more people are inoculated,” he said.

“Our aim will be to set out a gradual and phased approach towards easing the restrictions in a sustainable way, guided by the principles we have observed throughout the pandemic, beginning with the most important principle of all: that reopening schools must be our national priority and the first sign of normality beginning to return should be pupils going back to their classrooms.”

Mr Johnson said there was no question of children returning to school after next month’s mid-term break because the new English variant of coronavirus meant hospitals remained under pressure from new cases. He said the lockdown had reduced the rate of transmission and the vaccination of more than 13 per cent of the adult population offered hope that the virus could be controlled.


‘Perilous situation’

“At this point, we do not have enough data to judge the full effect of vaccines in blocking transmission nor the extent and speed with which the vaccines will reduce hospitalisations and deaths, nor how quickly the combination of vaccinations and the lockdown can be expected to ease the pressure on the NHS,” he said.

"What we do know is that we remain in a perilous situation, with more than 37,000 patients now in hospital with Covid, almost double the peak of the first wave. But the overall picture should be clearer by mid-February: by then, we will know much more about the effect of vaccines in preventing hospitalisations and deaths, using data from the UK but also other nations like Israel. "

Visitors to England from a "red list" of 22 high-risk countries will have to quarantine in a hotel for 10 days under a new tightening of border controls. And home secretary Priti Patel said more police would be on duty at ports and airports to tell people seeking to leave the country without a valid reason for doing so to turn around and go home.

King’s Cross skis

“At St Pancras, people have even been turning up with their skis, which is clearly not acceptable. We see plenty of influencers on social media showing off where they are in the world – mainly sunny places. Going on holiday is not an exemption, and it is important that people stay at home,” she said.

Labour leader Keir Starmer called for teachers to be moved up the priority list for vaccines and he accused Mr Johnson of sending a confused message about how safe schools were. "Even for this prime minister, it's quite something to open schools one day, close them the next, to call them vectors of transmission and then to challenge me to say that schools he's closed are safe. Only now to give a statement where he says that schools can't open until March 8th at the earliest because it's not safe to do so," he said.

Denis Staunton

Denis Staunton

Denis Staunton is China Correspondent of The Irish Times