An end to restrictions on June 21 is “not guaranteed”, warns Boris Johnson as Tory MPs demand a faster timetable
Boris Johnson has warned that freedom from restrictions on June 21 is “not guaranteed”, as Tory MPs urged him to bring accelerate his timetable out of lockdown. The Prime Minister insisted he was “very optimistic” that Step 4 of the Government roadmap to relax measures, which marks an end to legal limits on social contact and gatherings, could be implemented on the June date tentatively pinpointed for it. However, he reiterated that caution was needed as “it all depends on the way we continue to be prudent and continue to follow the guidance in each stage”. His intervention, made during a visit to a South London school on Tuesday morning, came after lockdown-sceptic Conservative MPs criticised the pace of his exit strategy from restrictions and warned it would be a “hammer blow” to a series of industries. Tory demands for the pace of easements to accelerate were bolstered by Professor Neil Ferguson, a leading epidemiologist, suggesting that the timetable could be expedited if the data on vaccines was better than expected. “Hopefully, what we’ll see when each step happens is a very limited resurgence of infections and hopefully very limited resurgence of hospitalizations and deaths, in which case, there’s a faint chance that we can accelerate the schedule. But we have to be driven by the data, as the Prime Minister said,” he told Times Radio. Sir Robert Syms, who sits on the steering committee of the lockdown-sceptic Covid Recovery Group (CRG) of Tory MPs, called on the Government to be more ambitious in its timetable for reopening the nation if the data supports it. He told The Telegraph: “My main concern is it [the roadmap] had these ‘not before’ dates, and the reality is therefore that the ratchet is only one way. They could put things off rather than, if the data improves, bring things forward. “The Government says it is focussed on ‘data not dates’, but it has put dates in and plans to pay attention to the data only if it’s bad. That’s a bit of a worry.” He added: “We should have vaccinated all [priority] groups 1-9 [including all adults over 50] by the middle of next month. We need to be able to advance things, rather than say things aren’t going so well, we need to put them back.” William Wragg, another Conservative MP on the CRG steering committee, echoed his call, saying: “My inkling is that the trajectory of data is all looking quite good. What’s missing is the ability to be flexible in the event of favourable conditions, as well as having in-built flexibility in unfavourable conditions.” Backbenchers also highlighted the Budget as a likely “pressure point” at which Tory critics of lockdown could raise concerns about the pace of relaxations. Sir Robert warned it would be seized on as a chance to battle potential tax rises, with MPs advancing the argument that hikes may not be needed if the economy were reopened more quickly and allowed to grow. While votes are planned next month on the laws underpinning Covid-19 restrictions, these are likely to be on secondary legislation, which is not amendable. Sir Robert said if motions could not be changed and the votes were straight up and down, it was unlikely many Conservatives would “vote against opening up the economy, even if slower rate than we would like”. The Prime Minister attempted to reassure MPs at the 1922 committee of backbenchers on Monday night that the legislation underpinning restrictions would expire on June 21, meaning MPs would be offered another vote before extending it. On Tuesday morning he reiterated his hope that relaxations will be complete by June 21, the date scheduled in his road map as the earliest possible juncture to lift final measures. It will mark the reopening of nightclubs and resumption of large-scale events. “I’m hopeful but obviously nothing can be guaranteed and it all depends on the way we continue to be prudent and continue to follow the guidance in each stage,” he said. “Genuinely, because of the immense possibilities of the rollout, because science has given us this way of creating a shield around our population, we can really look at that June 21 date with some optimism. I’m very optimistic that we’ll be able to get there.” It emerged on Monday that proposals for a major easing of lockdown before Easter were examined, but dropped after scientists warned the Government that it could lead to an extra 55,000 deaths. Mr Johnson also announced that senior minister Michael Gove will lead a review into the possible use of vaccine passports to access currently closed venues, such as pubs and theatres. Acknowledging that “fervent libertarians” will reject the premise of “Covid status certificates”, he said the concept needed to be investigated. He argued “we can’t be discriminatory against people” who cannot have a jab for medical reasons, while acknowledging some may also “generally refuse to have one”, albeit on mistaken grounds.