Boris Johnson has said he will be focusing on data and not dates when it comes to the easing of England’s coronavirus lockdown.
The prime minister said Professor Dame Angela McLean was “absolutely right” to tell a committee of MPs earlier that the relaxing of COVID-19 restrictions should hinge upon “data, not dates”.
Latest coronavirus updates from the UK and around the world
Mr Johnson said his “roadmap” out of lockdown, which he will unveil on Monday, will be based “firmly on a cautious and prudent approach” that ensures the unlocking will be “irreversible”.
“We want to be going one way from now on,” the PM added.
Speaking during a visit to a mass vaccination centre at Cwmbran Stadium in Cwmbran, south Wales, Mr Johnson said the easing would be done in “stages” and stressed: “We need to go cautiously.”
Asked about the reopening of hospitality venues, the PM said: “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.
“I know there’s a lot of understandable speculation in the papers and people coming up with theories about what we’re going to do, what we’re going to say, and about the rates of infection, and so on.
“I would just advise everybody just wait, we’ll try and say as much as we can on that.”
Mr Johnson praised the UK’s “outstanding” vaccine rollout, which has seen more than 15.5 million people receive their first jab.
Describing the drop in infection rates as “very encouraging”, the PM said there were “encouraging signs” that this was down to the vaccination programme.
“But it’s still early days,” he noted.
Mr Johnson has spoken in recent days of wanting to see “cautious but irreversible” progress as the lockdown is relaxed, suggesting a more tentative approach than the widespread unlocking of the economy seen last summer.
The PM has said his plan could include the earliest possible dates for reopening different sectors of the economy, but stressed these could be pushed back if the situation with the virus changes.
“If we possibly can, we’ll be setting out dates,” Mr Johnson said on Monday, but he added: “If, because of the rate of infection, we have to push something off a little bit to the right – delay it for a little bit – we won’t hesitate to do that.”
Meanwhile, one of the government’s scientific advisers has said ministers should consider quickening the pace at which lockdown is eased.
Professor Mark Woolhouse, who sits on the Scientific Pandemic Influenza Group on Modelling, told the Commons Science and Technology Committee it was important for the government not to be “overly focused on dates” when it comes to relaxing measures.
“We want to be focused on data. But the point I’d make about that is the data are going really well,” he said.
“The vaccination rollout is exceeding most people’s expectations, it’s going very well.”
The professor of infectious disease epidemiology at the University of Edinburgh added: “If you’re driven by the data and not by dates, right now you should be looking at earlier unlocking because the data are so good.”
Professor Woolhouse made the comments in response to a question about whether it was necessary to close schools during the current lockdown.
He later said he did not expect there to be a surge in cases when schools reopen.
Appearing in front of the same committee, Professor McLean, chief scientific adviser to the Ministry of Defence, said things are “moving in the right direction”, but cautioned that the number of people in hospital remained high.
“I share everybody’s optimism about how fantastic these vaccines are, but I would say we need to be optimistic and cautious,” she said.
Speaking about easing lockdown, she said “the timing is probably more important” than the UK’s R number, the number of people an infected person will pass COVID-19 on to.
“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,” Professor McLean told MPs.
“Let’s use data, not dates.”
Asked about what lessons could be taken from the easing of the first lockdown last year, Professor McLean said: “The thing to learn from the first lockdown was that caution was our friend. We did actually ease it pretty slowly and I would say things went very well.
“Numbers started to increase, but very slowly through August, it was only in September that numbers started to increase quite quickly.
“I think from May until September, I would give a big tick to say that that was well managed.”
On the second lockdown, which was in force during November, Professor McLean said: “I think with hindsight we came out of the November lockdown too early, but that was really because of the new variant.”