Lockdown restrictions could be gradually lifted from March – minister

Lockdown restrictions could be lifted from early March, with a return to the tier system for controlling Covid-19, the vaccines minister has said.
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Nadhim Zahawi said that once millions of the most vulnerable are vaccinated with a first dose by the middle of February, it takes just a few weeks for their immune response to kick in and offer protection.

It comes as the total number of people to receive a first vaccine dose in England, Wales, Scotland reached 3.94 million.

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The Government is currently on track to vaccinate 15 million people across the UK by mid-February, including health and social care staff, the elderly and people in care homes.

Nadhim ZahawiNadhim Zahawi
Nadhim Zahawi

Mr Zahawi said: “If we take the mid-February target, two weeks after that you get your protection pretty much for the Pfizer BioNTech (jab), three weeks for the Oxford AstraZeneca, (then) you are protected.

“That’s 80 per cent of mortality.

“One of the things that we don’t know yet – and the deputy chief medical officer Jonathan Van Tam is on record as saying ‘look give me a couple of months and I’ll tell you’ – is the impact of the vaccine on transmission rates, ie infecting people.

“So, that will become apparent. So there are a number of caveats that, obviously, stand in the way of us reopening the economy.

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“It will be gradual, it will be probably through the tiered system, but you’re looking at that sort of period – two to three weeks after the middle of February where we’ve protected those top four cohorts.”

Mr Zahawi told Times Radio that by the “first (or) second week of March” there should be “very clear evidence of a sort of a break in the correlation between infection rates and hospitalisation and obviously death”.

He added: “But of course, there are a lot of unknowns, we don’t know the impact on transmission of the vaccines yet.

“There are lots of caveats on this so I don’t want to sort of over-promise and under-deliver on this.”

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Asked if there was a role for mass testing, Mr Zahawi said the combination of vaccination and mass testing would allow the economy to gradually reopen.

And on the question of schools going back in early March, he said: “I’m saying to you that there are lots of uncertainties, we still don’t know what the impact of the vaccines are on transmission… but they (schools) are top of our list in terms of wanting them to reopen as soon as practically possible, with a combination of testing and, of course, vaccination as well.”

It comes as:

– New data analysed by the PA news agency shows that of the 315 local areas in England, 36 (11 per cent) have seen a rise in case rates in the seven days to January 13 compared with the previous week while 279 (89 per cent) have seen a fall. All areas in the top 10 have seen a week-on-week drop, with only three areas in the top 50 seeing an increase in rates.

– Knowsley in Merseyside has the highest rate in England, with 1,853 new cases recorded in the seven days to January 13 – the equivalent of 1,228.3 cases per 100,000 people. Barking and Dagenham in London has the second highest rate.

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– Wales’ First Minister Mark Drakeford told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme things are “improving slowly” there. But he said: “I think it will be certainly the middle of February before we begin to see any more significant lifting of the lockdown.”

Speaking on Monday, the national medical director for NHS England, Professor Stephen Powis, told Good Morning Britain that the vaccination programme will not have an impact on hospital admissions or death rates until “well into February”.

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