PEOPLE should be able to visit their friends and families at home from next month, a leading expert has said.
Paul Hunter, professor of medicine at the University of East Anglia, said the rate of the fall in Covid cases made him optimistic for March.
Paul Hunter, professor of medicine at the University of East Anglia, pictured in January 2020, said households could be allowed to mix from MarchCredit: Rex Features
He said household mixing should be allowed soon after pupils return to school – and he thinks that could be before the Prime Minister’s March 8 target date.
Prof Hunter told BBC Radio 4’s World At One: “I think there could well be a case for opening schools sooner – I particularly think schools for children under 11 years of age, where the evidence that they contribute to the spread of the epidemic in the wider population is a lot lower.
“I would certainly hope to see schools, and particularly junior schools, opening relatively soon.”
Asked about when people could start to see friends and family, Prof Hunter replied: “Personally I believe we should be able to start doing that probably not long after (schools reopen) – if I had to bet on a time, I’d say some time in March certainly.”
On being allowed back into restaurants, he added: “I think that will be probably around the same time, maybe April. But again, it just depends what happens with the epidemic between now and then.”
Prof Hunter said cases had dropped since Christmas far more quickly than he had expected, given the rapid spread of the new UK variant.
He said: “That is I think what is driving my optimism in a way that probably, if we’d had this conversation at the beginning of this month, I would not have been so optimistic.”
It comes after England’s chief medical officer Professor Chris Whitty has said he believes “we are past the peak”, and that cases, hospital admissions and deaths will continue to fall.
New daily cases have come down rapidly from a high of 61,000 per day in early January, to 23,000 now.
But Prime Minister Boris Johnson warned at last night’s Downing Street briefing that the level of infection is still “forbiddingly high” and that it is too soon to relax current restrictions.
Today the vaccines minister Nadhim Zahawi hinted that restrictions will not be fully lifted until all over 50s have had the jab.
He said lifting would be gradual to avoid going back into a lockdown, and that “you’ve got to make sure that your vaccination programme has protected the top nine categories” – which is all those over 50 years old.
A key scientist advising the PM also said jabbing over-50s will prove the key benchmark.
Professor Andrew Hayward, a member of the Sage group that advises the Government, said there could be a “significant return to normality” if targets are hit.
“We will see a phased opening up and more or less back to normal by summer”, he told BBC Radio 4’s Today.
Prof Hunter also said yesterday he thought the summer would be “a lot closer to normal”.
But there could be “another surge” in cases in the autumn, leading to a tightening of restrictions, and some restrictions would be in places until spring 2022, such as social distancing.
Prof Hunter explained that, even if vaccines are able to slow the spread of the virus, there will be a group of people who have declined or cannot have the vaccine.
They will still be at risk of infection and possibly death, and it is society’s “responsibility” to protect them, he said.
Dr Andrew Preston, a reader in microbial pathogenesis, Department of Biology and Biochemistry, University of Bath, also said there was also a danger to those in their 40s, 30s and younger if the lockdown was lifted too early, during the vaccine rollout.
It’s hoped that all adults could be vaccinated by August this year, according to internal Government projections seen by The Times.
Prof Whitty said the prospect of all adults receiving both doses by August is “very optimistic”, and there were supply constraints.
Already 10 million people have received their first dose of a Covid jab, as the UK storms ahead to the 14 million by February 15 target.
Officials will be assessing data from mid-February to see if vaccines, along with the tough Covid rules, have worked enough to consider coming out of lockdown.
They will be looking at whether vaccines do, as found in clinical trials, reduce rates of hospitalisations and deaths.
And they will also see if the jabs reduce spread of the virus – if they don’t, it means easing of restrictions will take much longer.
Some research has shown this week that vaccines do have some ability to cut transmission of the virus.
The Oxford vaccine has shown to cut spread by 67 per cent, and a study published today by King’s College London revealed that cases of Covid had dropped by 50 per cent in NHS staff who had been jabbed.