cientists and business leaders today said that Boris Johnson’s ultra-cautious new tone on Covid-19 suggests he will keep many restrictions in place for longer, despite the success of the vaccine roll-out.
Kate Nicholls, of Hospitality UK which represents the pub and restaurant industry, said the change of tone was “worrying” for owners who face ruin, some within weeks, unless they can open their doors.
Scientists said the language was significant because it suggested that the Government was being advised against the strategy being pressed by Tory MPs and many firms, which is to sanction a rise in case numbers from May when all 32 million “at-risk” people are due to have been safely vaccinated.
Professor Danny Altmann, of Imperial College London, told the Standard: “My impression is that the Cabinet have really been listening to advice from Sage [Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies] and I welcome this.
“One hears some politicians complaining about scientists ‘moving the goalposts’ but of course it’s the virus that moves the goalposts.”
In a key statement yesterday, Mr Johnson vowed to reduce infections to “very low” rates, adding that “you have a higher risk of new variants and mutations within the population where the disease is circulating”.
The concern at No 10 about mutations being more probable if transmission rises has widened the gap between the Prime Minister and the Covid Recovery Group [CRG] of MPs, which wants all legal restrictions to be scrapped in May when the most at-risk groups will have been vaccinated.
The CRG argues that the focus should shift quickly from national restrictions to individual responsibility. However, scientists believe higher cases will increase the risk of a mutation that could overcome vaccine defences in future, potentially triggering another lockdown in the autumn.
Professor Altmann said several new variants were detected in the United States over the weekend. “My sense at the moment is that the more sequencing we do the more we’ll uncover.
“In that sense, the virus and our vaccine cover against it remains a moving target, and this certainly should inform pragmatic decisions on the exit roadmap and timing.”
Virologist Professor Lawrence Young, of Warwick university, said Mr Johnson appeared committed to a more cautious approach than the Government adopted last summer.
He said: “I guess that this change in tone reflects increasing concerns about the possible impact of virus variants on the roadmap.
“Lifting lockdown restrictions too quickly risks a surge in new infections and further generation of variants.”
He added that it was important that younger adults are vaccinated because most transmission takes place among them.
Under the Government’s published timetable, they are not to be all vaccinated until September but ministers privately hope to race ahead of the target. Ms Nicholls said: “That is the worrying thing. We are back in the same situation as before where we have a split in government.
“Some of the scientific community are urging caution and others are asking why the vaccine roll-out success is not resulting in a materially different set of circumstances.”
The hospitality sector wants venues to open in May with restrictions similar to the safety measures in place last summer, such as seating, table service and social distancing. These would be eased 12 weeks after the over-50s get their first jab.
Professor Neil Ferguson, a scientist advising the Government’s Covid response, urged caution and said there is “always a risk” around new variants.
“Our current virus, which is the dominant one in the country, only requires one or two more mutations to partially escape immunity — and that means immunity naturally gained or immunity gained by being vaccinated — and so it is imperative that we monitor the situation as closely as we can,” he told ITV.
Hospitality UK is pleading for help to stop venues closing for good, including extending rate relief and low rate of VAT, plus help with rent debts.
Vaccines minister Nadhim Zahawi has said preliminary evidence on the effect of vaccines on coronavirus transmission was “really encouraging” but suggested the full data may not be available for weeks.
He also suggested that accessibility issues and hesitancy over safety are behind lower uptake of vaccines among social care workers.
Mr Zahawi said the lower rates among care staff are “partly driven by accessibility” but that repeat visits are “beginning to pay off”, as is the national booking system.
Mr Hancock said around a third of social care staff have not received a jab, despite them being on the priority list.
The disclosure prompted concerns over the safety of elderly and vulnerable residents, as well as suggestions that employers could require staff to have vaccines. Meanwhile, the number of weekly registered deaths involving Covid in England and Wales has fallen for the first time since Christmas, data shows.
However, there were still 7,320 deaths registered in the week ending February 5 where “novel coronavirus” was mentioned on the death certificate, the Office for National Statistics said, a decline of 1,113 deaths (13.1 per cent) compared with the previous week.
It comes as travellers in quarantine hotels face an additional £1,200 bill if they test positive for coronavirus, it emerged.
This is on top of the £1,750 fee for entering the programme and will apply to guests required to extend their stay beyond the initial 11 nights.