The debate over lifting lockdown is starting dangerously early

While the signs are good, the Prime Minister knows he cannot afford to make the same mistake thrice.

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“We are past the peak” of the latest wave of coronavirus, Chris Whitty, the chief medical officer in England, announced, as the number of people vaccinated in the UK passed ten million, nearly one in five of the adult population. 

We are observing a “steady decline” in the number of cases of coronavirus, Whitty said, and the number of coronavirus patients in hospital is falling along with the rate of those dying with the virus, although these figures remain “incredibly high” – higher, in the case of hospital admissions, than the peak of the first wave – and are likely to remain high for “quite some time”.

As so often in these press conferences, Whitty took the opportunity to quietly make the case for what he sees as the sensible approach to the pandemic going forward. Deaths from coronavirus will decline significantly once the over-70s have been vaccinated, but he warned that the pressure on hospitals won't be eased until the over-50s and clinically vulnerable have been vaccinated too: these groups make up about 80 per cent of those who are admitted to hospital with the virus. It was an indirect but clear argument against unlocking straight after the top four priority groups (ie the over-70s, NHS staff and care workers) have been vaccinated, as they are on track to be by mid-February, which Conservative MPs on the Covid Recovery Group have been calling for.

[see also: Why lockdown sceptics should accept the overwhelming case for restrictions now]

Boris Johnson seems, unusually, to be on the same page as the chief medical officer. He has resisted pressure from his MPs to bring forward the date of school returns, currently set for 8 March (when immunity from first doses given in mid-February will kick in), and said yesterday that he favours this "prudent and cautious" approach to unlocking. The "roadmap forward" for easing restrictions will be outlined on 22 February. 
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The Prime Minister doesn't want the political embarrassment of having to lock down yet again after we lift the current lockdown, nor can he afford to squander the progress made on the vaccine front by overwhelming the NHS again, or by allowing a vaccine-resistant variant to spread. The exit strategy is clear and the end is in sight, and the Prime Minister is therefore more assured in over-ruling lockdown sceptic colleagues than he has been in the past.

But those in the Conservative Party who are clamouring to unlock continue to have outsized influence, if not on the Prime Minister then at least on the debate. The number of people in hospital with coronavirus at the moment is higher than the previous peak, and a further 1,322 deaths with coronavirus were recorded within the past 24 hours. The public debate is somewhat premature, and that, more than anything, is what Chris Whitty was getting at. 

Ailbhe Rea is political correspondent at the New Statesman.

She co-hosts the New Statesman podcast, discussing the latest in UK politics.

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