Boris Johnson is awaiting new data on the impact of vaccines on coronavirus after insisting that he will take a “cautious and prudent approach” to easing England’s third national lockdown.
The Prime Minister is understood to be expecting evidence on the effectiveness of the UK’s jabs programme on hospital admissions and deaths by the end of tomorrow, Friday, February 19, ahead of setting out his roadmap out of lockdown next week.
However, it is not clear whether the early data would include the impact on transmission, with the results of two key Public Health England studies potentially not ready until next month.
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Meanwhile, major research showed lockdown measures were significantly driving down infection levels across England.
But the infection rates remained high and at similar levels to those observed in late September prior to the nation’s second lockdown in November.
Imperial College London’s React study, which tested more than 85,000 people in England between February 4 and February 13, suggested infections had dropped to just one in 200 people.
The study suggested infections were halving every 15 days, and the R number – which expresses how many people the average infected individual spreads the virus to – is at 0.72. This is below the government’s target of 1.0.
But, with the number of Covid-19 patients in hospitals remaining higher than during the first wave in April, experts called for caution in easing restrictions.
Steven Riley, Imperial’s professor of infectious disease dynamics, said that “because prevalence is high, there essentially isn’t a lot of headroom – there isn’t a lot of leeway”.
The Prime Minister stressed on Wednesday, February 17, that any easing of restrictions needs to be in stages as he was urged to focus on the data rather than date when lifting lockdown restrictions.
During a visit to a mass vaccination centre in South Wales, he was asked about a call from the Ministry of Defence’s chief scientific adviser, Professor Dame Angela McLean, for any unlocking to be based on “data, not dates”.
“I do think that’s absolutely right,” the Prime Minister told reporters.
“That’s why we’ll be setting out what we can on Monday about the way ahead and it’ll be based firmly on a cautious and prudent approach to coming out of lockdown in such a way to be irreversible.”
Boris will consider the evidence on how vaccines have been affecting coronavirus case numbers, hospital admissions and deaths before detailing his roadmap plans on Monday, February 22.
However, two key Public Health England studies on the impact of vaccines on the transmission of Covid-19 – the Vivaldi study on care home residents and staff, and the Siren research on healthcare workers – may not be available until next month.
Dame Angela was asked if the R-value needs to be at a certain level before restrictions can be eased as she appeared before the Commons Science and Technology Committee.
She told MPs: “I think the timing is probably more important. It’s how many of the people who are more at risk – that’s a mixture of old people or people with underlying conditions – have been vaccinated before we do more unlocking.
“The important issue is to really watch very closely what is happening, so if infections start to increase, and that we do everything we can to decide whether it is a good moment to take another step in unlocking.
“Let’s use data, not dates.”
Dame Angela warned against unlocking too fast and said it risked “disaster” if some of the most vulnerable groups were still unvaccinated.
Government figures showed 15 million people have received coronavirus vaccines in the UK so far, with more people being invited to get the jab.