Hopes that families will be reunited at Easter suffered a blow last night as government scientists demanded a cautious route out of lockdown.
Advisers are urging the Prime Minister to keep the brakes on for at least another two months.
Boris Johnson is determined to start reopening schools on March 8 but it could be several weeks before other restrictions begin to be lifted.
It means holiday plans for the period around Easter, which falls on April 4 this year, may still be ruined.
Boris Johnson is determined to start reopening schools across the country on March 8
A government source yesterday said it was ‘too early’ to think about holidays, which will not be possible until infection numbers are at much lower levels.
On the current rate of reduction in Covid cases, official scientific advisers think it is likely to take until the start of May for numbers to come down low enough to consider easing restrictions.
Government scientists are sticking to the mantra ‘the lower the better’ and are likely to push for infections to be at similar levels to June and July last year, when the first lockdown was lifted.
They also believe current travel restrictions reduce the chance of new Covid mutations – such as those found recently in Bristol and Liverpool – being spread around the country.
Officials warned last night that hopes of families being reunited with relatives in different parts of the country at Easter hang in the balance.
Whitehall sources said ministers are waiting for more data showing the vaccine’s effect on transmission of the virus before deciding if UK-based getaways will be allowed.
Advisers are urging the Prime Minister to keep the brakes on for at least another two months and said he should apply a cautious route out of lockdown. Pictured: Revellers in Soho, London, in 2020
The latest advice means holiday plans for the period around Easter, which falls on April 4 this year, may still be ruined. Pictured: Shoppers walk along Oxford Street in London
Despite the pessimism in Westminster, Welsh First Minister Mark Drakeford said he hoped it might be possible to allow holidays in Wales.
Up to quarter of patients were infected in hospital
Up to a quarter of hospital patients with coronavirus at the start of the pandemic may have been infected while there, figures suggest.
The stark figures are an estimate for the period from the start of February last year to the end of July, which makes assumptions about cases from a time when Covid testing was often limited.
The document containing them concludes that the impact on illness and death from coronavirus picked up in hospital may have been ‘high’, even though these infections are thought to have made up approximately 1 per cent of total case numbers.
This is because many who were already in hospital may have been frail before infection.
Researchers from Public Health England and the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine came to the conclusions after examining two sets of data.
But Professor Stephen Powis, NHS national medical director, disagreed with the ‘speculative’ claims.
At a press conference in Cardiff, he suggested self-catered accommodation may reopen if infection rates continue to decline.
‘I’m trying to give an indication that if everything continues to improve, we will do what we can to respond to [the tourism industry’s] wish to be able to resume trading over the Easter period,’ he said.
Mr Johnson will publish a detailed roadmap on February 22 setting out his plan for lifting the lockdown.
It is expected to begin with the reopening of at least some schools next month, with primaries likely to be prioritised.
Outdoor exercise rules could also be eased at this stage.
The plans will then lay out a timetable for wider reopening, with shops likely to be first, followed by gyms and hairdressers and, finally, pubs and restaurants.
Ministers are expected to wait at least a couple of weeks between each step so they can assess the impact of lifting each measure.
A Whitehall source last night: ‘This has to be done quite carefully because we want this to be the final lockdown. The last thing we want is to go into further restrictions.’
But Sir Geoffrey Clifton-Brown, Conservative MP for the Cotswolds, said: ‘It is just as dangerous for the nation to be too cautious in unlocking.
‘A sufficient proportion of the population will have been vaccinated by April.
‘There is no reason why the vast bulk of the economy – shops, pubs, restaurant – shouldn’t be allowed to begin to open then.’
He added that holidays in the UK should be allowed before Easter ‘or if not, immediately after’.
The Office for National Statistics (ONS) report today suggested suggested there were 695,400 Covid-19 cases in England alone by February 6, down 31 per cent from a fortnight ago in yet another firm sign the second wave is in retreat. This equates to one in eighty people having the virus
R-rate falls below 1 for first time since July
By Eleanor Hayward Health Correspondent
Infections are falling across the whole country at the fastest rate since July, official figures show.
The so-called R-rate is now below one in every region and stands at between 0.7 and 0.9 for the whole of the UK, which is the lowest level since summer.
Government scientists said the number of infections is halving around every fortnight, boosting hopes it will be safe to reopen schools in March.
Latest data shows that cases, deaths and hospital admissions have all dropped by around a quarter in the past week.
Data published today by the ONS suggests infections in England have fallen by 31 per cent in the last fortnight, as the second wave is firmly in retreat
ONS figures show infections continued to plummet in every region except Yorkshire and the Humber, where estimates suggest they have plateaued
The ONS also found that Covid-19 infections are still falling in every age group in England as the nation endures lockdown
Yesterday, another 758 deaths and 15,144 cases were reported, taking the overall number of people testing positive to over four million. But the infection rate is now at 177 per 100,000, the lowest level for more than two months. It peaked at 642 per 100,000 on January 4.
As infections plummet, pressure on the NHS is easing significantly. There are 24,352 Covid-19 patients in hospitals, down 40 per cent from the peak.
Yesterday is the first time since July 31 the Government’s scientific Sage advisers said they were confident the R-rate was below one across the UK.
The rate, which was 1.4 in the first week of January, is the average number of people infected by someone with the virus. It must be below one for the epidemic to shrink.
Sage said: ‘We are confident the epidemic is shrinking across all NHS England regions.
‘However, prevalence of the virus remains high, so it remains important that everyone continues to stay at home.’
Although officials are hopeful that the downward trajectory will continue, Government scientists warned it could be months before cases are low enough to lift lockdown safely.
Yesterday, a separate weekly report from the Office for National Statistics confirmed infections were falling. Random testing of people in England found that one in 80 had the virus last week, the equivalent of 695,400 people in total.
This is down from one in 65 the week before and one in 50 at the start of January.