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The Prime Minister announced his roadmap to ease lockdown restrictions on Monday. The four-step plan would see schools reopen to all pupils on 8 March, non-essential shops, outdoor dining and beer gardens open no earlier than 12 April, and indoor mixing, drinking and dining, hotel visits and limited crowds at sporting events to return from 17 May at the earliest. If all goes to plan, all the final restrictions, including on nightclubs and mass-attendance events like football matches could be lifted from 21 June.
The Prime Minister said that these ‘cautious’ easements plans would be based on ‘data not dates’ with assessments of the easing of restrictions based on four areas:
- Vaccine deployment
- Evidence showing that vaccines are effective in reducing hospitalisations and death
- Infection rates and hospital capacity
- New variants of concern.
He told the House of Commons: ‘The end really is in sight and a wretched year will give way to a spring and a summer that will be very different and incomparably better than the picture we see around us today.’
Leader of the opposition Kier Starmer said that this current lockdown has to be the last, highlighting that this is the third time the country has come out of a national lockdown. He said that the success of the vaccine rollout will be essential, while track, trace and isolate must also be working effectively. He proposed a £500 payment for workers so that they can isolate if necessary, as well as better protection for school children and teachers.
NHS Providers welcomed the cautious approach to releasing restrictions. Chief executive Chris Hopson said: ‘While the cautious approach outlined in today’s Roadmap won’t be fast enough for some, history has sadly taught us that rushing headfirst into lifting lockdown leads only to rapid reimposition, tragic loss of life and avoidable patient harm.’
Hopson also called for continued momentum behind the vaccination programme and an effective strategy to rapidly identify and control future outbreaks from variant strains. NHS Confederation’s chief executive Danny Mortimer echoed this point, arguing that there needs to be more clarity on the four tests laid out by the Government and effective public messaging, warning, ‘we can cannot afford a fourth national wave of COVID-19, which would risk even greater damage to a fragile and tired health service’.
The Health Foundation said that easing of lockdown should be used as an opportunity to Build Back Better: ‘As we see the light at the end of the tunnel, the Government needs to ensure that no one is left behind, particularly the most vulnerable. Longer term there must now be a major Government focus on eradicating the deep-seated health inequalities that the pandemic has exposed.’
In other news, the Health and Social Care Secretary came under fire this week for claiming that the NHS did not run out of Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) during the peak of the pandemic last year. This comes after a judge last week found that the Health Secretary had breached his legal obligation to publish details within 30 days of PPE contracts being signed. Hancock has since claimed that details were published late because his Whitehall staff were focused on ensuring that there was no national shortage of PPE.
Speaking in the House of Commons Shadow Health Secretary highlighted that there were instance off PPE shortages, he said: ‘The National Audit Office reported on it, we saw nurses resorting to bin bags and curtains for makeshift PPE, hundreds of NHS staff died.’ He called for greater scrutiny of the PPE contracts and any money to be recovered on contracts which produced unusable PPE.
It was announced that people with severe learning disabilities would be given greater priority in the Vaccines Delivery Plan. The Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation (JCVI) confirmed that all those on the GP learning disability register would be invited to receive a vaccine as part of cohort 6. This is because of their perceived risk to Covid-19, due to issues including that individuals in the group are more likely to have underlying health issues and that some people with learning disabilities are more exposed to Covid-19 if they live in residential care.
Responding to the decision, Disability Right’s UK said: ‘People with learning disabilities are six times more likely to die from coronavirus than people without learning disabilities. It is hugely welcome news that everyone with learning disabilities can now be urgently protected by vaccination.’ The Learning Disability charity Mencap also welcomed the ‘fantastic news’.