Easing lockdown will inevitably create a rise in coronavirus deaths, Boris Johnson has said, crediting the lockdown rather than vaccines for “the bulk of the work” in reducing recent infection rates.
While the prime minister’s comments were intended as a reminder to people to take care amid the latest loosening of rules in England, they are likely to annoy some Conservative backbenchers who are eager for reopening to happen more rapidly.
On Tuesday afternoon all Tory MPs were sent a letter from Matt Hancock, the health secretary, hailing the success in offering at least a first vaccination to everyone in the first phase of priority groups by mid-April. It argued that “it is because of the success of the vaccination rollout” that restrictions can be lifted.
But in comments made at Downing Street on Tuesday amid widespread coverage of busy shopping streets and packed pub beer gardens following Monday’s reopening in England of non-essential retail and outside hospitality spaces, Johnson urged caution.
“It’s great that we have managed to achieve the target of getting everyone in the one to nine groups vaccinated by the deadline, by the timetable – a little bit ahead actually, 32 million people now have got their first dose, which is terrific,” he said. “We are going now to the 45-49 group; they are being asked to come forward.”
He continued: “Of course the vaccination programme has helped, but the bulk of the work in reducing the disease has been done by the lockdown. So, as we unlock, the result will inevitably be that we will see more infection, sadly we will see more hospitalisation and deaths. People have just got to understand that.”
A number of Conservative backbenchers, centred around the Covid Recovery Group of MPs, are calling for a faster pace of lockdown easing than planned, and are likely to be alarmed by Johnson saying vaccination alone will not be sufficient to provide some return to normality – even though government scientists have said this repeatedly.
In his comments, Johnson said there were no immediate plans to change the roadmap out of lockdown for England, which is set in five-week stages.
He said: “But it is very, very important that, if we are to get there in the way that we all want, people continue to be cautious and they continue to exercise restraint and just do the basic things to stop the spread of the virus – washing your hands, giving people plenty of space, doing things in fresh air.”