Andrew Castle 7am - 10am
Lockdown-sceptic Tories demand PM lifts all Covid restrictions by end of April
13 February 2021, 22:27 | Updated: 14 February 2021, 12:20
Lockdown-sceptic Tories have piled pressure on Boris Johnson, calling on him to commit to a timetable for lifting coronavirus restrictions with a complete end to controls by the end of April.
In a letter to the Prime Minister, the leaders of the Covid Recovery Group (CRG) said the "tremendous pace" of the vaccination rollout meant restrictions should begin easing from early March.
They said ministers must produce a cost-benefit analysis to justify any controls that remain in place after that date, with a "road-map" stating when they would be removed.
The letter was organised by the CRG chair and deputy chair, Mark Harper and Steve Baker, and was said to have the backing of 63 Conservative MPs in all.
It comes amid warnings from scientists advising the Government that lifting restrictions too quickly risks another wave of the disease as big as the current one.
63 Conservative MPs sign our letter to the PM 👇— Mark Harper (@Mark_J_Harper) February 13, 2021
👉 Vaccine = immunity from lockdowns & restrictions
👉 All pupils back in school 8 March
👉 Hospitality open by Easter
👉 No legislative restrictions after top 9 vulnerable groups protected #Road2Recovery starts here 🇬🇧 pic.twitter.com/ae2IfXAS19
Mark Harper told LBC's Swarbrick on Sunday: "Remember, all these rules were put in place to save lives and protect the NHS and actually the life saving and the NHS protecting is going to be done by the vaccine, not by these restrictions.”
"The problem at the moment is you keep hearing people from SAGE, for example, coming out and suggesting we are still going to have restrictions all the way through the summer and perhaps have them again in the winter. And we are not hearing ministers counter that.”
However, Mr Harper added: “I would love to be able to stand up in the House of Commons and welcome the roadmap [the prime minister] sets out... and so would all the colleagues who have signed the letter. We are just setting out what we think the government should do.”
Earlier, Mr Johnson said he was "optimistic" he could announce plans for a "cautious" easing of the rules when he sets out his "road-map" out of lockdown on February 22.
However in their letter, the CRG say that the Government's "national priority" of re-opening schools in England by March 8 "must" be achieved.
By Easter, they say pubs, restaurants and other hospitality venues should be able to open in a way that is Covid-secure but still allows them to operate "in a commercially viable manner".
And by the end of April - when all the Government's top nine priority groups, including all over 50s, should have been offered a vaccine - they say there will be "no justification" for any legislative restrictions to remain at all.
"Covid is a serious disease and we must control it. However, just like Covid, lockdowns and restrictions cause immense social and health damage and have a huge impact on people's livelihoods," the letter said.
"The vaccine gives us immunity from Covid but it must also give us permanent immunity from Covid-related lockdowns and restrictions.
"This should be a moment of unity - for our country and our party - as we look ahead with confidence, hope and optimism for a much brighter future, as we reclaim our lives once and for all."
The letter points out that by March 8 the Government's top four priority groups - including the over 70s, accounting for 88% of deaths and 55% of hospitalisations - will have received the vaccine and will be protected.
"All restrictions remaining after March 8 should be proportionate to the ever-increasing number of people we have protected," it says.
"The burden is on ministers to demonstrate the evidence of effectiveness and proportionality with a cost-benefit analysis for each restriction, and a roadmap for when they will be removed."
Among the restrictions about which they had "concerns" were those relating to outdoor sport and swimming pools, gyms, personal care businesses, care home visits, hotels, events industry businesses, and weddings.
The scientific community continues to be split over how quickly restrictions should be restricted.
Sir Jeremy Farrar, Director of the Wellcome Trust, described the calls from the CRG as "very wise".
"Differences opinion may be much less than some portray," he tweeted, adding this would depend on the successful rollout of the vaccine and the pressure on the NHS reducing.
Very wise. Differences opinion may be much less than some portray. If transmission continues fall with amazing roll out vaccine,halving time true number cases every 17d, reduction intense pressure NHS #HCW, decisions on data then Spring is coming https://t.co/aeQkz2xBHV— Jeremy Farrar (@JeremyFarrar) February 14, 2021
However, Dr Bharat Pankhania, senior clinical lecturer at the University of Exeter medical school, said discussions on pubs opening in April are “premature, because we don't know what the state of cases will be in the country at that point in time.
"It may be that the cases are low and that we have regained control,” he said, but warned: “What the executives of pubs need to know is that failure to get it right equals back to square one."