There are growing divisions over Boris Johnson’s roadmap to lifting Covid-19 coronavirus restrictions.
While some conservatives say the success of the vaccination program does not require sustained restrictions, Wales’ first minister Mark Drakeford has described the Prime Minister’s roadmap as “optimistic” – and Wales is unlikely to return to full normal in 2021 .
Boris Johnson will meet with the powerful 1922 Conservative MPs Committee this week to defend his roadmap out of hand. The Prime Minister’s press secretary Allegra Stratton said: “As expected, the Prime Minister takes every opportunity when he meets his Conservative MPs to represent the case.”
Critics, including former Whip boss Mark Harper, have warned that the restrictions will remain draconian until June 21 at the earliest on schedule, as the success of the vaccination program means they are not needed.
Ms. Stratton said: “Basically, he believes this is a cautious, but if we get it right, irreversible roadmap.
“So if we take the time to do this the way we do, with the five week review points (between phases), we will be sure at each point that the easing is the right thing to do.
“So it takes time, because we want to make sure we’re doing the right thing.”
Foreign Minister Dominic Raab had previously rejected an “arbitrary” request by lockdown skeptic Tories in the Covid Research Group to undertake to lift all legal restrictions in England by the end of April.
Ministers will now begin reviewing the restrictions before Mr Johnson announces on February 22nd that he has set his “roadmap” for the lockdown.
More than 60 MPs in the CRG support a letter to the Prime Minister insisting that he commit to a fixed schedule for the end of the controls.
They said schools will have to return as planned on March 8th as pubs and restaurants will open in “economically viable ways” from Easter onwards. The end of the lockdown is the end of April.
However, Mr Raab said that while ministers wanted to lift controls as soon as possible, it was important to make sure the disease was under control first.
“We have to be very careful how we proceed.
“We made good progress.
“We don’t want this to go away because we’re going too far too quickly,” he told Sky News’ Sophy Ridge On Sunday program.
“We are not making a commitment that is slightly arbitrary for me without reviewing the impact of the measures on the transmission and hospital admissions of the virus.
“We need to maintain some flexibility to deal with the variants that are of course part of the pandemic but change the exact timeframe.”
However, CRG chairman Mark Harper insisted that their demands represented a “sensible” way forward as more people were protected by the vaccine.
“They are not random, arbitrary schedules.
“It’s very much related to the introduction of the vaccine,” he told Times Radio.
“When you’ve vaccinated the top nine groups, which represent 99% of the people who sadly died from Covid and around 80% of the people who are critically ill, I don’t think there is any justification for all of these draconian restrictions.”
Mr Raab said they still wanted to start schools reopening on March 8, although he wasn’t convinced they could all return at the same time as it is reported that secondary schools could return a week later.
“We will have to wait to carefully evaluate the data and enable these plans to be implemented,” he said.
“Because we are making progress, we can be sure that we can start this process.”
The foreign minister noted that enabling outdoor socializing and reopening non-essential stores would also be early priorities as controls were eased.
Meanwhile, Wales’ first minister, Mark Drakeford, has warned that if the disease recurs, there could be another stalemate.
He told BBC Wales: “I want to be honest and realistic with people in Wales instead of just trying to paint the most optimistic picture I can.
“I think some of the suggestions the UK government is making seem to be on the very optimistic end of the spectrum and not fully taking into account the advice we have about the risks that we will have as we move forward in the calendar year.
“I definitely hope that life becomes much more normal through summer than through winter.”
“But I think that means that it will all be over, that there are no dangers, no risks to people, hospitals that are completely coronavirus free? That is not the advice I get from our chief medical officer. “
Speaking to Sky News, Drakford said, “The advice of our Chief Medical Officer and our scientists is that you should always take action during these early stages that can be quickly undone if you need to.”
“If there were unintended consequences when three to seven-year-olds went back to school, we could of course take the opposite route.”
Despite ministers’ hopes of major easing in England, scientists continue to warn that if they go too fast, they could face another wave of the pandemic, just as bad as the current one.
During a visit to a vaccine factory in Teesside on Saturday, Mr Johnson said that while he was “optimistic” about the prospect, he would have to study the data “very, very hard” because he did not want to be forced to “reverse ferrets”.