Public against rush to reopen after Covid lockdown, say ministers

The public does not back a rapid easing of lockdown measures, ministers believe as they plan a cautious timetable for the lifting of restrictions.

Early March has been earmarked for moving the first areas out of lockdown – but only into the toughest tiers, with little further easing expected by Easter on April 4, The Telegraph understands.

It also emerged on Tuesday that the return of schools could be phased, with children in some parts of the country going back sooner than their peers elsewhere.  

Tuesday saw the UK record its deadliest day of the coronavirus pandemic so far, with the daily toll reaching 1,610 deaths.

However, the number of new cases is falling, with 302,802 infections recorded in the last week – down 22.3 per cent on the previous seven days. The latest number of people admitted to hospital is 3,634, the lowest daily number since January 2.  

Swathes of London have also seen sharp falls in case numbers, including the east of the capital, which was particularly badly hit by the second wave.

Covid case rates by English region

A Whitehall source said the prevailing mood on lifting lockdown was to take decisions steadily to avoid having to reimpose restrictions later, adding: "There is light at the end of the tunnel [from the vaccine rollout], so the question is… is it worth extending the tunnel a bit to get it right?"

Another Government insider said the aim was to "start in higher tiers with a view of only going one way. It’s about establishing a reopening pathway. If you want certainty, you have to play it longer".

The insider added: "There are quite a lot of industries where if they reopen and close, like pubs, they incur big costs."

Reflecting the cautious approach, Jenny Harries, the deputy chief medical officer for England, said on Tuesday that it is "likely" there will be "some sort of regional separation of interventions" for the return of schools after the national lockdown.

She said that while the "ambition" to open schools next month remained, it was subject to the caveat that the country has recently seen high Covid infection rates.  

Ministers are said to be wary of damaging high public confidence in their management of this stage of the pandemic. A YouGov poll this week showed that 61 per cent of Britons feel the Government is handling the vaccine rollout well, up from 41 per cent earlier this month.

How many people in the UK have received their first doses of the Covid-19 vaccine?

Another poll conducted at the beginning of the month showed that almost 80 per cent of the public backed a lockdown, and ministers are understood to feel that this justifies a cautious exit from restrictions.   

However, a senior Government source insisted that polling would play no part in the decision on easing restrictions, saying it would be based on case rates, hospitalisations, deaths, transmission rates and the vaccine rollout.

There is growing pressure on the Government from Conservatives in the lockdown-sceptic Covid Recovery Group (CRG) to set out a clear roadmap from restrictions, which the MPs argue are bad for people’s health and jobs.

Steve Baker, the deputy chairman of the group, said: "Businesses and individuals desperately need hope and the opportunity to plan our recovery. That’s why we need to know our road to recovery as soon as possible."

Mr Baker said the forecast for the vaccine rollout, which pinpoints February 15 as the target date by which the 15 million most vulnerable Britons will have received a jab, should be used as the basis for plans to lift restrictions. He said this should commence three weeks later, on March 8, when the last of those vaccinated in the first wave will have achieved a significant level of immunity against Covid.

Concerns are also growing about the disparities between the effect of the restrictions on different communities across the country. New research from the Trades Union Congress suggests black and minority ethnic workers have been hit 26 times worse by the employment crisis sparked by the pandemic than white workers.

The Government is examining options to deal with Covid job losses and will unveil plans to retrain the nation later this week. Ministers are preparing to announce a significant expansion of student loans, meaning adults can take them out to fund vocational and technical courses as well as undergraduate degrees.

While some quarters of the Government are looking ahead to the crisis recovery plan, there were warnings that some industirues face a longer period of uncertainty.

One minister said music festivals were unlikely to take place this summer, adding: "I don’t think Glastonbury will happen, I really don’t. I think if Glastonbury were to happen they would need the assurances very soon, which I don’t think they are going to get."