- Boris Johnson said he wants an ‘irreversible’ lockdown but, despite being ‘increasingly optimistic’ about easing restrictions, he can’t guarantee this will be the last. At the daily news conference, the prime minister said he aims to cautiously ease coronavirus restrictions in an “irreversible” manner, but conceded he cannot offer a “cast iron guarantee” that England’s third national lockdown will be its last. He welcomed the “unprecedented national achievement” of vaccinating 15 million of the most vulnerable people in the UK ahead of the target deadline on Monday, but said now is “no moment to relax” in terms of unlocking. The level of coronavirus infections is still high and the number of hospitalisations higher than they were during the first peak, Chris Whitty said. No decisions have yet been made, Johnson said, adding that people should take speculation with “a pinch of salt”. He called for people to be “optimistic but also patient” about the situation.
- There are ‘grounds for confidence’ that vaccinations reduce Covid-19’s spread, but they’re awaiting the ‘hard facts’ before setting out the timetable for easing the lockdown, Johnson said. Public Health England is also conducting a study tracking the people who have been vaccinated to monitor the effect on hospitalisations and deaths. Early data suggests it’s having an impact but it’s too early to come to any conclusions, Simon Stevens said. This will inform the roadmap out of lockdown due to be set out by the PM next week.
- There is ‘reasonable evidence’ that a booster shot will be needed in the autumn, Chris Whitty said. There are two potential reasons for this: if immunity started to wane (and we don’t currently know how long that would take); and if the virus were to mutate into variants that could escape the immunity provided by the vaccines. The latter would require redesigning the vaccine and re-vaccinating, Whitty said.
- The offer of a first dose will be extended to people aged 65-69, he says, as well as those with underlying health conditions and eligible adult carers, Simon Stevens said, marking the next “sprint” in the vaccine rollout. The “marathon”, he added, was vaccination for everyone in the country.
- There’s a battle against a ‘pandemic of misinformation’ over the vaccine but there’s been ‘meaningful progress’ in take-up among black and Asian communities, Stevens said. He said the NHS is working with community and faith leaders to tackle misinformation and vaccine hesitancy and to encourage take-up in minority groups.
That’s all for today. If you would like to continue following the Guardian’s coverage of the coronavirus pandemic, head over to our global liveblog:
Q. How do you work out if it’s vaccines bringing transmission down or if it’s because we’re in lockdown?
Whitty says case control studies are being done.
In time, the rates of severe disease and fatality will fall in which people were vaccinated, he says.
Impact on transmission will take longer to determine than impact on mortality and severe disease, he adds.
Stevens says early data looks like a signal on the impact of vaccination but this needs another week or fortnight to be able to properly validate that.
Q. Who do you hold responsible for the lack of transparency over the origins of the virus ane what actions are you willing to take?
Johnson says there needs to be a general agreement on how we research and track data surrounding zoonotic pandemics and around transparency, for instance a treaty on pandemics.
And that’s the end of the press conference.
Q. Will people in hotel quarantine be charged extra if their release is delayed if they test positive? What mental health is being provided to them?
Johnson says it’s currently illegal to travel abroad for holidays.
He would expect people from ‘red list’ countries to be able to cover their costs and they should be able to access mental health support.
Q. Why is the target date for vaccinations for everyone over 50 the end of April rather than March?
Stevens says if supply increases the NHS can move faster, but it is ramping up in the next phase.
Q. Will you publish data on how many people have declined the vaccine?
Stevens says the NHS publishes take-up by ethnic group and this is shared with local directors of public health.
Q. What is the government doing to address vaccine hesitancy and the spreading of misinformation, particularly among minority groups?
Stevens acknowledges there is vaccine hesitancy among some black and South Asian communities and the NHS has been working with community leaders and faith leaders to try to overcome that, eg vaccinating at mosques.
Whitty says it’s critical to support people to combat misinformation and make clear that the risk of the vaccine is massively lower that getting the disease.
Q. How will you prevent companies from mandating customers and employees to have proof of vaccination before accessing their services?
Johnson says the government is considering rapid testing for parts of the economy that haven’t reopened at all, eg theatres, nightclubs.
In combination with vaccination, that will probably be the route forward, he adds.
Q. What are the implications of no vaccination programme being 100% effective?
Johnson says the vaccines offer a high protection against serious disease or death, but at the moment we can’t quantify what that means in terms of driving down the incidence of the virus and the speed at which that will happen.
So we just have to be cautious at the moment, he adds.
Q. What implications of this for protecting public health? Will some measures like social distancing become permanent?
Whitty says the risk will gradually go down, but whether it gets down to zero or to a case where we have to do things at various points in the season is too early to say.
By far the majority of the heavy lifting is done by vaccination drugs and promising treatments (which the prime minister can’t pronounce) will also help, he adds.
Q. Once schools are reopened, will you wait to see what effect it has on infection rates before opening up anything else?
Q. Will you announce any other measures at the same time, eg socialising outdoors?
Johnson says decisions aren’t taken yet.
Q. Are we seeing an effect of vaccinations on the death rate yet and if not, when?
Whitty says the early indications imply there’s some effect but it’s too early to put a number on it. He expects in the next few weeks we could, he adds.
Q. Can you guarantee this will be the last lockdown and will it be a very gradual easing? Should we rule out getaways at Easter?
Johnson says he can’t give that guarantee, though he is optimistic about the possibilities for opening up with vaccinations.
Q. Will the government commit to a mental health spokesperson at the next briefing to set out how people can access support?
Johnson says the stresses and strains of lockdown are having an impact on people, adding that NHS mental health services and mental health charities are still there to be accessed by those who need them.
I hope there isn’t much longer to go now, he adds.
Whitty says one of the next priority groups to receive their first dose of the vaccine is people who have significant mental health disorders.
They’re taking questions now.
Q. How will the NHS cope with pressure to re-vaccinate people every year and resume normal health provision?
Whitty says we still don’t know how long we will need between vaccinations and if there will be variants that escape the immunity the vaccine provides.
The vaccine would be redesigned around the new variant, he says. But we don’t know how regularly this will be needed, he adds.
It will probably vary year by year, but probably won’t be on this scale, he says.
Stevens says thousands of volunteers and high street pharmacists have helped the vaccination effort, which will help the usual NHS workforce.
Stevens is speaking now.
Between now and the end of April, those who have been invited for their first dose but haven’t come forward, they can still do so by getting in touch with their GP, he says.
People will also get their second booster doses, he says, beginning early-mid March, 12 weeks on from the first dose, at the same place you had the first dose.
And the offer will be extended to a larger group of people, for people aged 65-69, he says, as well as those with diabetes, heart problems, learning difficulties and mental illness.
Eligible adult carers will also be contacted by letter, he says.
The number of people receiving a first dose of the vaccine is steadily going up, he says.
The first layer of protection - the first dose - only begins to work three weeks later, he says.
It’s crucial people go back for their second dose, Whitty says.
They don’t yet know how effective these vaccines are against transmission, he reiterates.
The more we vaccinate out in the community, the more we protect those most vulnerable, he says.
The number of people dying remains high but is continuing to go down, he says.
The most recent seven-day average is 657 deaths, now below the peak of the first wave, he adds.
The number of people in hospital is also coming down, but rates are still very high (slightly above what they were in April during the peak last year), he says.
Whitty is speaking now.
The number of people testing positive for Covid-19 is coming down steadily over time, but it’s still at quite a high level (above September last year), he says.