Coronavirus UK news updates – 'Irreversible' lockdown lift can only happen if cases fall ANOTHER 93%, NHS chief says

Coronavirus UK news updates – 'Irreversible' lockdown lift can only happen if cases fall ANOTHER 93%, NHS chief says

THE UK'S 'irreversible' lockdown easing can only take place if cases fall by another 93%, the chief executive of NHS Providers has said.

Desperate to avoid plunging the UK back into yet another crippling lockdown, the PM this week insisted that a cautious lifting of restrictions is needed to avoid hospitals becoming overwhelmed with covid patients.

But NHS chief Chris Hopson has now written to Boris Johnson urging him to "resist pressure to loosen restrictions" before it is safe to do so, adding that cases need to drop below 50,000 before lockdown can be eased at all. 

As there are currently 695,400 active Covid cases in England, that accounts to a staggering fall of 93% before anything changes, according to Hopson.

"I think there is a pretty clear view is that number needs to come down to around 50,000," he said, adding that we are still "some way away" from that.

Among the first measures expected to be eased are the rules preventing Brits from leaving their homes more than once a day for exercise.

As part of the lockdown eas outdoor sporting activities such as tennis and golf are expected to be back before April as the Government hopes it will encourage Brits who've been cooped up indoors all winter to get fit again.

Boris will formally announce his lockdown roadmap Monday February 22, outlining the exact timeline and conditions for Britain to slowly return to normal – including the return of children to schools and pubs reopening.

He is also expected to ditch the Government's 'Stay at Home, Protect the NHS' slogan for a new message that urges a slow and cautious return to some normality following the worst period of covid deaths we've seen.

Follow the live blog below for the very latest news, updates and analysis of the coronavirus crisis…

  • Britta Zeltmann

    UK VARIANT SPREADS IN GERMANY

    The UK variant of coronavirus is spreading rapidly in Germany, where it now accounts for more than one in five cases, German Health Minister Jens Spahn said Wednesday.

    "The mutation that was first discovered in the UK is particularly worrying… We have to expect that it will now become the dominant variant here," said Spahn at a press conference.

    Latest studies by Germany's Robert Koch Institute (RKI) for public health showed that the UK variant now accounted for "more than 20 to 22 percent of positive cases", as opposed to just six percent two weeks previously, Spahn said.

    "That means that, just as we have seen in other countries, the proportion is doubling every week," he added.

  • Britta Zeltmann

    BORDER FORCE

    Professor Sir John Bell said border controls were unlikely to completely prevent the importation of new cases and variants.

    Sir John, Oxford University's regius professor of medicine, said the UK was not like New Zealand, which had imposed strict measures to prevent the importation of cases.

    "They have got quite a lot of sheep in New Zealand, they are a million miles from anywhere and it's a lot easier if you want to put up border controls in New Zealand than it is here," he told the Science and Technology Committee.

    He added that "we are quite a small country, we are very closely hooked up to Europe with people going back and forth".

  • Britta Zeltmann

    'NO OUTBREAKS LINKED TO CROWDED BEACHES'

    There has never been a Covid-19 outbreak linked to a crowded beach, MPs have heard.

    Professor Mark Woolhouse, professor of infectious disease epidemiology at the University of Edinburgh, told the Science and Technology Committee: "Over the summer we were treated to all this on the television news and pictures of crowded beaches, and there was an outcry about this.

    "There were no outbreaks linked to crowded beaches, there's never been a Covid-19 outbreak linked to a beach ever anywhere in the world to the best of my knowledge."

    Thousands flocked to Bournemouth beach last summer
  • Britta Zeltmann

    WORKING TOGETHER

    Boris Johnson said the UK Government would continue to have conversations with devolved administrations about how best to exit lockdown.

    Asked whether the four UK nations should ease their restrictions in unison, the Prime Minister said: "We have continuous conversations with Mark Drakeford, with other representatives of devolved administrations, about how to do it, just as we work on the vaccination programme together.

    "We try and make sure we concert our approach and our general messages."

    The PM visits a vaccination centre at Cwmbran Stadium in Cwmbran, south Wales, todayCredit: AFP or licensors
  • Britta Zeltmann

    BORIS: 'WE NEED TO UNLOCK IN STAGES'

    Boris Johnson has said easing England's restrictions would be done in "stages," noting that hospitality was one of the last things to return after the first lockdown.

    The Prime Minister said: "I certainly think that we need to go in stages. We need to go cautiously.

    "You have to remember from last year that we opened up hospitality fully as one of the last things that we did because there is obviously an extra risk of transmission from hospitality."

  • Britta Zeltmann

    'CAUTIOUS APPROACH'

    Boris Johnson said easing England's lockdown will be based on a "cautious and prudent approach".

    The Prime Minister was responding to whether he agreed with Professor Dame Angela McLean's comments to the Science and Technology Committee that any unlocking should be based on "data, not dates".

    Speaking at a mass vaccination centre in Cwmbran, south Wales, Mr Johnson said: "I do think that's absolutely right.

    "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."

  • Britta Zeltmann

    TEST BLITZ

    Coronavirus testing in Scotland has been extended to all primary care staff.

    It means every member of staff in a patient-facing role such as GPs, nurses, optometrists and pharmacists will be tested, as well as cleaners and receptionists.

    Lateral flow tests, which provide quicker results but are considered to be less sensitive, will be dispensed to primary care facilities to allow for twice-weekly testing.

    The expansion was announced by the First Minister earlier this month, with testing reaching Scottish Ambulance Service call handlers and hospice staff this week.

  • Britta Zeltmann

    OUTDOOR ACTIVITIES 'SHOULD HAVE BEEN RELAXED SOONER'

    Prof. Woolhouse said the Government was slow to reopen schools and outdoor activities in the first lockdown.

    "I think we probably could have considered reopening schools much sooner in the first lockdown," he told the Science and Technology Committee

    "The other thing, quite clearly, is outdoor activities. Again, there was evidence going back to March and April that the virus is not transmitted well outdoors.

    "There's been very, very little evidence that any transmission outdoors is happening in the UK.

    "Those two things, I think, could have been relaxed sooner in the first lockdown."

  • Britta Zeltmann

    'VALUE OF LOCKDOWN GOES DOWN AFTER TIME'

    Professor Mark Woolhouse [see previous] told the Science and Technology Committee that the "value of a lockdown goes down with time".

    "It goes down because of a phenomenon called exponential decay," he said.

    "So, if, for example – I'm not suggesting this as a policy – but we had planned a very long lockdown to try and drive incidence as low as possible, and we have a hard time of let's say two weeks which is about where we were in the first lockdown.

    "You get half the public health benefit of that six-month lockdown in the first two weeks.

    "The next two weeks is only half the benefit again and then half the benefit again. So, the actual public health benefit you're getting from lockdown diminishes over time if the R number is constant."

  • Britta Zeltmann

    SCHOOL SURGE 'NOT EXPECTED'

    Professor Woolhouse [see below] said he would not expect a surge in cases when schools reopened.

    "One of the stated reasons for keeping schools closed was to avoid some surge in cases when they open – that's never happened across western Europe," he told the Science and Technology Committee.

    "We know what a surge in cases looks like – we saw it in September and October in the universities, we've never seen that in the schools, and I don't expect to."

    He said that schools do not appear to drive the epidemic but "reflect the epidemic around them".

  • Britta Zeltmann

    DATA POINTS TO ‘EARLY UNLOCKING’

    Mark Woolhouse, professor of infectious disease epidemiology at the University of Edinburgh, said the data is pointing to “earlier unlocking”.

    He told the Science and Technology Committee: “I completely agree that we don’t want to be overly focused on dates, not at all. We want to be focused on data. But the point I’d make about that is the data are going really well.

    “The vaccination rollout is, I think, exceeding most people’s expectations, it’s going very well.”

    He added: “The transmission blocking potential is key. But so, of course, is its actual ability to protect against death and disease, and to keep people out of hospital, and those numbers are looking really good.

    “My conclusion from that is if you’re driven by the data and not by dates, right now, you should be looking at earlier unlocking.”

  • Britta Zeltmann

    KIDS AT ‘VERY LOW RISK’

    Mark Woolhouse, professor of infectious disease epidemiology at the University of Edinburgh, said there is a case for saying school kids do not contribute to growing R rates.

    When asked whether schools needed to shut during the current lockdown, he told the Science and Technology Committee: “Children themselves are at very low risk from this infection.

    “We’ve also got good evidence now that teachers and other school staff are not at any elevated risk from Covid-19 compared with other working professions.

    “So, the discussion is all about the contribution that schools make to the R number.

    “There is a case, certainly for children under 16 up to 15, that having them in school does not make such a big contribution to the R number that we couldn’t consider lifting it in the reasonably near future.”

  • Britta Zeltmann

    ‘DATA NOT DATES’

    Professor Dame Angela McLean, chief scientific adviser at the Ministry of Defence, has told the Science and Technology Committee the government should focus on “data not dates”.

    When asked if the R level needed to be at a certain level before lockdown can be eased, she said: “I think the timing is probably more important, it’s how many of the people who are more at risk of – 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 that 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.”

    Referring to the Prime Minister’s comments that unlocking would be “cautious but irreversible”, she added: “I think it has been stated pretty clearly that each step should be irrevocable. That means we have to be extremely careful, before we add another unlocking.”

  • Britta Zeltmann

    FULL RETURN TO NORMAL 'UNLIKELY'

    Professor Dame Angela McLean, chief scientific adviser at the Ministry of Defence, told the Science and Technology Committee that is was "quite unlikely" for a full return to how society was before the pandemic struck.

    "I suspect we just won't go to work if we have a respiratory illness," she said.

    When asked whether this would be mandated, she added: "It would be most powerful if it became socially unacceptable to go to work with a cough."

  • Britta Zeltmann

    JAB TO NORMAL

    Vaccine passports could be needed to go to the cinema and theatre under plans being pushed by some ministers to help get “dying” businesses open again faster.

    Boris Johnson is being urged to reconsider his opposition to issuing jabs certificates, which inoculated people would be able to use to get their lives back to normal.

    One senior minister told The Times: “We’re talking about industries that are dying here. In terms of getting live music, theatre, and other parts of the entertainment industry back on their feet, it seems an obvious thing to do once the majority of people have been vaccinated.”

    Read the full story here.

  • Britta Zeltmann

    VACCINE SIDE EFFECTS 'TWICE AS COMMON' IF YOU'VE HAD COVID

    Professor Tim Spector has said post-vaccine side effects are twice as common in those who have already had Covid.

    The top epidemiologist urged survivors not to rush getting vaccinated if they've had the bug in the last six months, writing on Twitter: "No point rushing to get vaccinated if you clearly had Covid in the last six months."

  • Britta Zeltmann

    COVID CLASH

    Dominic Raab and Kate Garraway were engaged in a fiery on-screen clash this morning as the presenter grilled the foreign secretary on "nonsense" quarantine hotels after he called the GMB host "cynical".

    The row erupted when the GMB host said she wanted Raab to "clarify" his response during a heated exchange over the Government's quarantine hotel policy.

    The interruption from the host saw Dominic Raab snap back "Will you let me answer?"

    The Foreign Secretary then hit back as he said GMB viewers are fed up with the "media" not allowing politicians to give "honest answers."

    Read more here.

  • Britta Zeltmann

    RYANAIR LOSES STATE AID FIGHT

    Ryanair on Wednesday lost its fight against state aid granted to virus-hit rivals Air France and SAS via national schemes after Europe's second-top court backed EU competition regulators who had allowed the support under loosened rules.

    "That aid scheme is appropriate for making good the economic damage caused by the Covid-19 pandemic and does not constitute discrimination," the Luxembourg-based General Court said, referring to the French scheme.

    It said the Swedish scheme was compatible with EU laws.

    Europe's biggest budget carrier has filed 16 lawsuits against the European Commission for allowing state aid to individual airlines such as Lufthansa, KLM, Austrian Airlines and TAP, as well as national schemes that mainly benefit flag carriers.

  • Britta Zeltmann

    EU'S JAB HOPE

    Pfizer and BioNTech say they have finalised an agreement to supply the European Union with another 200 million doses of their COVID-19 vaccine.

    The U.S. and German companies said in a statement that the doses come on top of the 300 million vaccine doses initially ordered. The EUs executive Commission has an option to request a further 100 million doses.

    They said the 200 million doses are expected to be delivered this year, with an estimated 75 million of them in the second quarter.

  • Britta Zeltmann

    JULY 'FAR TOO LATE' TO LIFT RESTRICTIONS

    July would be "far too late" to lift restrictions for leisure and tourism, a Conservative MP has said. 

    The Daily Mail suggested this morning that restrictions would be lifted gradually, starting with self-catered holidays at Easter and outdoor-only hospitality in May, before tourism getting "broadly" back to normal by July. 

    But Craig Tracey, MP for North Warwickshire & Bedworth, told the Telegraph that Boris Johnson must set out a "clear timeline next week".

    He added: "The vaccine programme is brilliant, but there needs to be light at the end of the tunnel. With the success of the scheme, which looks like continuing, July seems way too late for leisure and tourism". 

  • Britta Zeltmann

    42 COVID VARIANTS

    Public Health England says it has identified 42 cases of Covid-19 featuring a set of mutations referred to as B.1.525.

    The health body tweeted: "This variant has been detected in other countries including Nigeria, and is currently classified as a Variant Under Investigation (VUI)."

  • Britta Zeltmann

    EASING THE LOCK 'SOME WAY AWAY'

    Chris Hopson, chief executive of the NHS Providers organisation, said the nation was "still some way away" from being able to start relaxing restrictions.

    The Government has set out four "tests" which should guide easing: getting case numbers down, reducing pressure on the NHS, further strides in the vaccination programme and an effective strategy to control future outbreaks.

    Mr Hopson told the Today programme: "I think if you look at where we are against those four tests, each one of them tells you that we're still some way away from being able to start relaxing restrictions."

    He added: "We had 500 Covid patients in hospitals in September and yet, 15 weeks later, we had 34,000 patients, and we were perilously close to overwhelmed. So, what that says to you is that you just need to be really careful before you start relaxing the restrictions prematurely."

  • Britta Zeltmann

    FIRST COVID HUMAN CHALLENGE STUDY TO LAUNCH

    The world's first coronavirus human challenge study will begin in the UK within a month, following approval from the UK's clinical trials ethics body, the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (Beis) has announced.

    It will involve up to 90 carefully selected, healthy adult volunteers being exposed to Covid-19 in a safe and controlled environment.

    The study aims to establish the smallest amount of virus needed to cause infection.

    This will give doctors greater understanding of Covid-19 and help support the pandemic response by aiding vaccine and treatment development.

  • Britta Zeltmann

    'BLENDED LEARNING' IN SCOTLAND POSSIBLE

    There is "every possibility" that secondary schools in Scotland may have to use blended learning when more youngsters are allowed to return to the classroom, the country's Education Secretary has said.

    John Swinney was speaking after it was confirmed a small number of senior students in Scotland will be able to return to high school from Monday, if they need to do so for practical work.

    Children in P1 to P3 and nursery school youngsters are also set to return to class on Monday, on a full-time basis.

    Speaking on BBC Radio Scotland's Good Morning Scotland programme on Wednesday, Mr Swinney said: "The scientific advice I have available to me just now recognises that physical distancing will be required for at least senior phase pupils in our secondary schools."

    Asked about the prospect of blended learning – which would see pupils in class for part of the week and learning remotely for the remainder – he said there is "every possibility, unless that advice changes, that we have to operate on such a model".

  • Britta Zeltmann

    'AMBITIOUS TESTING TARGETS'

    Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab said that ministers had "ambitious targets", when asked about reports of 400,000 lateral flow tests being posted out to homes per day.

    "We have got ambitious targets in relation to testing which we have met at various points, as well as the vaccine rollout," he told Times Radio Breakfast.

    "And we are absolutely doing everything we can to meet those targets. They are obviously designed to be challenging, because we want to get people out of the current lockdown as soon as possible.

    "The only way to do that is responsibly, safely – that's the way we make it sustainable."

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