Boris Johnson has said he is optimistic about announcing the easing of some lockdown measures soon as the government nears its target of offering vaccines to 15 million people in priority groups.
Speaking on Saturday at a visit to the Fujifilm Diosynth Biotechnologies plant in Billingham, Teesside, where the new Novavax vaccine will be manufactured, the prime minister said his first priority remained opening schools in England from 8 March, to be followed by other sectors.
He said: “I’m optimistic, I won’t hide it from you. I’m optimistic, but we have to be cautious. Our children’s education is our number one priority, but then working forward, getting non-essential retail open as well and then, in due course as and when we can prudently, cautiously, of course we want to be opening hospitality as well.
“I will be trying to set out as much as I possibly can in as much detail as I can, always understanding that we have to be wary of the pattern of disease. We don’t want to be forced into any kind of retreat or reverse ferret.”
Reports on Saturday suggested pubs and restaurants might be able to serve to customers outdoors from April, and restrictions on social mixing easing by May, but Johnson declined to be drawn on that timetable.
The prime minister expressed his support for statements from the health secretary, Matt Hancock, that the virus could become a “manageable disease” like seasonal flu.
“A new disease like this will take time for humanity to adapt to, but we are,” he said. “The miracles of science are already making a huge difference, not just through vaccinations but therapies as well. New therapies are being discovered the whole time which are enabling us to reduce mortality, improve our treatments of the disease.
“I do think that in due time it will become something that we simply live with. Some people will be more vulnerable than others – that’s inevitable.”.
On Saturday morning, the Conservative MP, David Davis, said the UK would eventually have to approach coronavirus as it does seasonal flu.
“We don’t think for a second of locking down the country over flu,” he told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme, adding “there will come a point where there is a death rate from Covid, but it is at normal level”.
But Steven Riley, professor of infectious disease dynamics at Imperial, and a member of the Spi-M group which advises the government, warned it was too early to begin making comparisons with flu.
“I’m not sure Covid settles down to look like flu so quickly, and there’s quite a long time to go from now until next winter,” he told the Today programme. “In some ways it’s not the right time to make that decision, we need to see how low we can get the prevalence of Covid in the community.”
He also said that getting coronavirus vaccinations and treatments to the level of seasonal flu would be a “very good position to be in” and “certainly a reasonable scenario”.