Boris Johnson has signalled that he will take a cautious approach to easing restrictions in an attempt to make it the last national lockdown to combat the coronavirus pandemic.
The Prime Minister said on Friday the “far more sensible approach” is to reopen “safely and cautiously”, starting with schools, to prevent a rapid resurgence of infection rates.
He will likely face opposition from Conservative backbenchers who are eager for him to release the restrictions as soon as the most vulnerable groups receive some immunity from vaccination.
Chief medical officer Professor Chris Whitty warned even a “very small change” with cases so high could cause a rapid resurgence while chief scientific adviser Sir Patrick Vallance warned against “getting too hooked” on specific dates for easing measures.
After disclosing fears the new UK strain could be even more deadly than previously thought, Mr Johnson told the Downing Street press conference Covid-19 will have to be lived with “for a long while to come”.
“I also think that the British public and British business would much rather we opened safely and cautiously when it was right to do so rather than opening up again and then being forced to close back down simply because the virus takes off again,” he added.
“I think that is a far more sensible approach.”
Amid warnings the Brazilian and South African variants may be less effective against vaccines, Mr Johnson did not rule out closing the UK border to foreign travellers.
Prof Whitty said the situation remained “extremely precarious” and that “a very small change and it could start taking off again from an extremely high base”.
“If people took this moment and said, ‘Right, it is over’, it would get back into very deep trouble very fast and the NHS is absolutely at the top of what it can manage,” he warned.
“If that happened again, we would be in really, really deep trouble.”
The Covid Recovery Group (CRG) of Conservative lockdown-sceptic MPs said ministers “must start easing the restrictions” in March when the top four risk groups should have received some immunity from single jabs.
Sir Patrick countered this call, saying: “The key thing, I think, is to keep watching, measuring and assessing where we are and not getting too hooked up on specific dates, because we don’t know at the moment.
“We need to watch, wait, measure and release carefully as we go through it.”
Earlier in the day, Professor Sir David Spiegelhalter, a member of the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage), warned of the scale of the challenge facing the Prime Minister.
As evidence suggested the third national lockdown in England is causing infection rates to retreat, the University of Cambridge academic told BBC News: “The one thing I can be absolutely confident about is that, by this time next month, there is going to be the mother of all arguments.
“Because it’s quite feasible that deaths will have come down considerably, infections should have come down considerably, hospitalisations and ICU will still be under a lot of pressure.
“There will be enormous pressure to loosen things up.
“Loosening it up will inevitably lead to an increase in cases, a resurgence of the pandemic among younger groups, and we can see then that does seep through into hospitalisations.
“So there’s going to be a real battle going on.”
Mr Johnson this week declined to rule out the lockdown lasting into the summer as he raised concerns about the highly infectious new strain of coronavirus.
The Government’s Scientific Pandemic Influenza Group on Modelling (Spi-M) suggested pubs and restaurants would have to stay shut until May.
It said a wholesale easing of restrictions by the end of April, when all over-50s are expected to have received a vaccine, would be too dangerous.