Minister hints social distancing will be needed for foreseeable future

Vaccines Minister Nadhim Zahawi hints social distancing could be required for the foreseeable future as PM prepares to unveil his ’50 page lockdown exit strategy’ next Monday – but return of normal weddings ‘unlikely by Easter’

  • Boris Johnson will unveil his lockdown exit strategy on Monday next week
  • Roadmap said to be 50 pages long and will include target dates for reopening
  • Government scientists said to be pushing for social distancing to be retained
  • Nadhim Zahawi hinted social distancing could be needed for foreseeable future 

Vaccines Minister Nadhim Zahawi today suggested social distancing could be kept in place for the foreseeable future – potentially long after lockdown has been lifted. 

Mr Zahawi said the Government’s approach to combatting the spread of coronavirus must be ‘data driven rather than just date driven’. 

His comments came amid reports that Government scientific advisers are increasingly pushing for the rules to be retained in a move which could have devastating long term consequences for the hospitality sector.

There is said to be an active debate in Whitehall about how long the one-metre-plus restriction will be needed as ministers try to balance the needs of the economy with the need to reduce infection rates. 

A Government source told Sky News: ‘This is the killer argument and no decision has been made. A lot rests on it for some businesses – the difference between being viable and not.’ 

It came as Boris Johnson prepares to unveil his eagerly-anticipated lockdown exit strategy on Monday February 22.

The draft version of the roadmap for a return to normal life is more than 50 pages long, according to The Telegraph. 

The success of the Government’s vaccine roll-out has boosted hopes of a swift easing of restrictions but sources have cautioned there will not be a ‘big bang’ out of lockdown. 

It was hoped that certain activities, like Covid-secure weddings and singing in church, could be allowed to return by Easter Sunday on April 4 but that now looks unlikely. 

Boris Johnson will unveil his eagerly-awaited lockdown exit strategy on Monday February 22 

The debate over how long the one-metre-plus rule will be kept in place is said to be a ‘killer argument’ in Whitehall at the moment

A senior source told the Telegraph: ‘It’s not going to be a big bang, it’s going to take some time.’ 

Mr Johnson said yesterday that he wants the UK to make ‘cautious but irreversible’ progress when lockdown starts to be lifted.     

Ministers are said to be discussing plans to allow shops to re-open, families to be re-united and self-catering staycations to be given the go ahead if Covid-19 infection rates continue to plummet. The Governments wants schools to reopen on March 8. 

However, the PM spooked Tory MPs demanding a swift return to normal life when he said he wants to get the rate of infection ‘down very low indeed’ in order to reduce the risk of new variants and to guard against the fact that ‘no vaccination programme is 100 per cent effective’.  

He said: ‘We would like to see the rates of infection come down very low indeed and that’s why we have the tough border regime to stop infection coming in and, as we get ever better with testing and tracing and enforcing fights against the new variants, we will want to see those rates really, really low.

‘Because the risk is that if you have a large, as it were, volume of circulation, if you’ve got loads of people, even young people, getting the disease then a couple of things happen.

‘First of all, you have a higher risk of new variants and mutations within the population where the disease is circulating.

‘Secondly, there will also be a greater risk of the disease spreading out into the older groups again.

‘And although the vaccines are effective and great, of course no vaccination programme is 100% effective, so when you have a large volume circulating, when you’ve got a lot of disease, inevitably the vulnerable will suffer, so that’s why we want to drive it right down, keep it right down.’

The PM has said that his plan will include specific target dates for when certain activities could be allowed and when certain sectors of the economy will be allowed to reopen. 

Mr Johnson said at a Downing Street press conference last night that he hoped the current lockdown will be the last but that he cannot give a ‘cast iron’ guarantee that will be the case. 

There are now growing questions over what life will look like even after rules have been eased amid reports that Government scientific advisers believe social distancing and mask wearing will be needed long into the future. 

Asked about the reports and whether he is of the view that social distancing will have to be kept in place, Mr Zahawi told Sky News: ‘We are all pro-social animals. It is in our DNA that we want to socially interact, we want to hug our children, our grandchildren, our friends.

‘I would say this: We have to be data driven rather than just date driven.

Officials have vaccinated the vast majority of the top four priority groups — everyone over the age of 70, NHS staff, care home residents and workers, and extremely ill adults

‘We have to follow the evidence from SAGE, from the scientists, to make sure that if we are able to control this virus better, obviously our main way out of this pandemic is our vaccination programme which we are making sure that we deliver as quickly as possible, protecting the most vulnerable and then moving to the whole of the adult population.

‘We want to be able to by September have offered the vaccine to the whole of the adult population.

‘But with that level of vaccination which hopefully we will see the data on infection rates coming down, transmission, there is some good data from Oxford but there has to be a peer review and we wait for our own data from Public Health England surveys that are now being conducted.

‘But with that, surge testing, tracing and isolation, and any other measures whether it is mask wearing or social distancing, I think we have to be driven by the data rather than just dates.’ 

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