Dominic Raab said on Sunday any lifting of coronavirus measures would be “evidence-led” as the UK foreign secretary pushed back on calls from senior Conservative MPs to lift lockdown by the end of April.
More than 60 Tory MPs wrote to Boris Johnson over the weekend demanding a “road-map” for lifting all restrictions as the prime minister prepared to announce that the NHS had hit the target for vaccinating the 14.6m people most at risk from Covid-19 by the start of the week.
The letter from the Covid Recovery Group argued that if all nine priority groups were vaccinated as planned by the end of April, there would be no “justification for legislative restrictions to remain”. About 32m people fall within the nine groups, representing 99 per cent of deaths and about 80 per cent of hospitalisations from Covid-19 in the UK.
Raab said that while the government “shared the ambition” to lift lockdown measures, it was vital to adhere to an evidence-led approach, rather than relying on what he described as “arbitrary” targets.
“We are not making what feels to me like a slightly arbitrary commitment without reviewing the impact that measures have had on the transmission and the hospital admissions of the virus”, he told Sky News.
Raab also argued that the government needed to be able to “retain some flexibility” on the specific timetable of lifting restrictions in order to take into account the impact of numerous variants of the virus.
“We do need to be very careful how we proceed. We have made good progress. We don’t want to see that unravel because we go too far too quick”, he said.
His comments came as the government was set to announce that it had met its target of offering a first dose of the vaccine to the 14.6m people in the UK within the top four priority groups by February 15, including over-70s and frontline heathcare workers. They will on Monday begin vaccinating people between 65 to 69.
Raab said that ministers were “confident” of hitting the 14.6m target, adding: “The numbers look good, but I want to wait until we’ve got the formally published figures so that we’re doing it accurately and in the right way.”
The letter from the CRG urged Johnson as a “national priority” to reopen all schools to all pupils, as planned, by March 8. The prime minister is set to give details later this month on how he plans to lift the lockdown in England and is considering whether to open all schools in early March or opt for a phased approach with primaries returning first.
The MPs also called for the reopening of pubs, restaurants and other hospitality venues by Easter, which falls on the first weekend of April, and for all other restrictions to go by the end of the month.
In their letter to Johnson, the backbench MPs argued that the burden would be on ministers to illustrate the “effectiveness and proportionality with a cost-benefit analysis for each restriction”.