Boris Johnson is closely monitoring coronavirus case rates as a requirement for easing restrictions in England, stressing the need for a layer of caution alongside four key criteria set out at the beginning of lockdown.
Last month Matt Hancock, the health secretary, said the success of the vaccine programme, reducing hospitalisations, reducing deaths and controlling the spread of new variants were the four criteria used to decide when the strictest measures could be lifted.
On Monday the prime minister struck a cautious note as he repeatedly emphasised his desire for a slow, controlled easing of restrictions that would not have to be rolled back again – a process he described as “cautious but irreversible”. Johnson said he would “like to see the rates of infection come down very low indeed … we’ll want to see those rates really, really low”.
The emphasis on infection rates as a key factor in the easing of restrictions is likely to inflame tensions with Conservative MPs, some of whom privately pointed out that Hancock committed to the four criteria as recently as 9 February.
Anti-lockdown MPs argue that case rates will matter less once vaccinations take effect. One said on Monday: “Looks like the goalposts left the ground.” A Downing Street source said the four criteria had “never been exclusionary” of other factors and that Johnson had always said the general state of the pandemic would be the key driver.
The prime minister confirmed that he would set out a roadmap for ending restrictions on Monday 22 February, including a concrete timetable with “earliest possible” dates for reopenings – a clarification many MPs had been clamouring for. But he also said the rate of infection would need to be studied at every turn.
“If we possibly can, we’ll be setting out dates,” he said. “The dates that we will be setting out will be the dates by which we hope we can do something at the earliest … 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.”