Boris Johnson said he was “optimistic” that he will be able to make plans for “cautious” easing of restrictions on coronavirus lockdowns in England later this month.
The Prime Minister said that while the total number of cases remained high, the rate of infection has been gradually falling as the introduction of the vaccination program has made “tremendous strides”.
“I am optimistic I will not hide from you. I am optimistic but we have to be careful,” he told reporters during a visit to a vaccine factory in Teesside.
His comments came as scientists continued to urge caution in easing current controls when Mr Johnson set out his “roadmap” for England on February 22nd.
A scientist who advised the government said ministers risked a third wave of the pandemic, as big as the current one, if moved too fast, while senior NHS figures said health care remains under great pressure.
Ministers, however, are confident that the vaccination program is on track to meet the target of having an offer by Monday deadline for everyone in the four main priority groups, including those over 70.
Mr Johnson said the effectiveness of the vaccines in lowering infection rates is key to determining how quickly they could relax restrictions.
“Although the number is slowly going down and maybe going down pretty quickly, we have to look at the data very, very carefully,” he said.
“Something that will also be very important is the effectiveness of the vaccines – they are working as we hope they will – and making sure that, along with the lockdown, they really do help lower the incidence. That’s the key. “
The Prime Minister said the government’s priority would remain to open schools in England on March 8, followed by other sectors if conditions permit.
“Our children’s education is our top priority, but then we work to open non-essential retail stores and in due course, when we can be prudent and careful, we want to open up hospitality too. ” he said.
“I will try to explain as much as possible and in as much detail as possible, always understanding that we have to beware of the clinical picture. We don’t want to be forced to retreat or turn ferrets around. “
The Prime Minister, who visited Fujifilm Diosynth Biotechnologies’ Billingham facility, where the new Novavax vaccine is manufactured, echoed Health Secretary Matt Hancock who suggested that a combination of vaccines and therapeutics could make Covid-19 a “manageable disease” like the seasonal flu.
“A new disease like this will take some time to get used to, but we are,” he said.
“I think that in due course it will become something we just live with. Some people are more vulnerable than others – this is inevitable. “
Previously, Professor Steven Riley, a member of the Spi-M modeling group, warned that while the introduction of the vaccination program had been “incredibly successful,” it did not mean that controls could simply be dropped.
“No vaccine is perfect. I think scientists are really concerned. We don’t want to show that it is a great but imperfect vaccine by having another big wave in the UK, ”he told BBC Radio 4 Today.
“If, for whatever reason, we chose to just pretend it wasn’t here (coronavirus), there is the potential to return to a wave similar in size to the one we are in right now. “
Meanwhile, the NHS Confederation Chairman Lord Adebowale expressed concern that March 8 was too early for schools to return.
He said the NHS workforce was “on their knees” and “couldn’t afford another climax”.
“I understand the pressure to open schools. We have to do this very safely. I think we should do a reassessment in mid or late March, ”he told the Today program.
However, Mr Johnson remains under pressure from some Tory MPs to lift restrictions and reopen the economy as soon as possible.
Former Cabinet Secretary David Davis said, “There will be a point when Covid will die, but it’s at normal levels and then we have to deal with it. Of course we are still trying to prevent this from happening, but we accept it. “