Scientists advising the government have warned against lifting England’s lockdown too quickly, amid reports ministers are deciding which parts of society to ‘open up’ again first.
Minister are reportedly looking to open up outdoor socialising and sport as soon as March or April, within weeks of the estimated 8 March date for schools reopening.
Professor Graham Medley, chairman of the Scientific Pandemic Influenza Group on Modelling (Spi-M), said the government should ‘make decisions dependent on the circumstances, rather than being driven by a calendar of wanting to do things’.
He was backed by Dr Mike Tildesley, also from Spi-M, who said there needed to be a gradual easing out of lockdown to prevent a resurgence of cases and the need to implement tighter controls.
But Sir Graham Brady, chairman of the backbench 1922 Committee, said the country was in a “far more optimistic place”, citing falling infection rates and the vaccine rollout.
“We don’t want the Government to be behind the curve if things continue moving as positively and as rapidly as they are,” he told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme.
Foreign Office minister James Cleverly refused to confirm the exact timetable when questioned on Friday morning.
He said: “The decisions will be based on the assessment of what is safe, as well as effective.
“I can’t give you absolute guarantees of exactly when restrictions will be eased, in which order, in which sectors, I’m just not able to do that.”
The Times reported that Boris Johnson’s roadmap out of lockdown, expected to be published in the week starting 22 February, will prioritise open-air contact and will lay out a timetable for when the hospitality sector and shops can reopen.
Watch: What is the science behind coronavirus and schools?
Experts have warned against unlocking too rapidly and allowing fresh transmission of the virus.
Dr Tildesley, from the University of Warwick and a member of Sage subgroup the Scientific Pandemic Influenza Group on Modelling (Spi-M), said suggestions of outdoor socialising and a return to sport next month were “slightly concerning”.
He told Times Radio it was important “to avoid a yo-yo situation where we unwrap things too rapidly, we get a resurgence and we have to lock down again”.
Pressed on whether outdoor socialising next month seems reasonable, he said: “I would say next month our real focus should be getting our children into school, and that should be the really key thing that’s top of the agenda.”
He said “a little bit more mixing outdoors” might be reasonable but would need “very clear messaging from the government”.
Dr Tildesley added: “I really appreciate the need for people getting back some level of normalcy. My concern is a resurgence by doing that, which will lead to a much greater problem as we get into the spring.”
The news comes amid differing views over how soon England should come out of lockdown, with reports that Chancellor Rishi Sunak has voiced concerns that scientific advisers are “moving the goalposts” for easing lockdown restrictions.
Tory MPs in the lockdown sceptic COVID Research Group are heaping pressure on the PM to commit to easing measures as soon as vulnerable groups are vaccinated.
Government sources have reportedly said any plans for easing lockdown are “tentative” and only the date for the earliest return of pupils to schools has been agreed.
The Times suggested that when the hospitality sector is allowed to reopen, it will come with simplified rules and pubs will no longer have to serve alcohol with a ‘substantial meal’. It has also been suggested that the tier system could be scrapped.
Professor Graham Medley, from the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine and chairman of the Spi-M group, said the government should “make decisions dependent on the circumstances, rather than being driven by a calendar of wanting to do things.”
He told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme: “Vaccination offers a way out and it does reduce the impact of infection, but it doesn’t remove it completely.
“And so case numbers are still important because they represent the risk of having to go back into some kind of national measures.”
Asked whether case numbers needed to be as low as 1,000 a day, he said: “Clearly the lower the numbers of cases are, the more time you have to react if things start to go badly wrong.
“If the case numbers are very high, if they’re as high as they are at the moment, for example, then you will have very little time in which to react to avoid the kind of national lockdown that we’re in at the moment, which nobody wants.”
England’s chief medical officer Chris Whitty said this week that the UK had passed the second COVID wave.
Watch: What you can and can't do during England's third national lockdown