The leader of the influential group of Tory MPs pressuring prime minister Boris Johnson over the UK’s Covid lockdown said on Friday that all restrictions should be eased once the most vulnerable groups had been vaccinated.
Mark Harper, who chairs the Covid Recovery Group of Conservative MPs, told the Financial Times’ Payne’s Politics podcast that politicians rather than scientists should determine the risk to society from the virus after everyone aged 50 and over have received the vaccine.
“I think once you vaccinated certainly the top nine groups, and you’ve reduced 99 per cent of those that have died from Covid, and to reduce the level of hospitalisation by 80 per cent, it seems to me at that point, you’d struggle to make an argument for having any restrictions in place at all,” he said.
Mr Harper’s views run contrary to the prime minister, who has said England should take a gradual path out of lockdown from March 8 — the earliest date when schools might be able to reopen. MPs will be asked to vote to extend restrictions beyond the end of March.
Mr Johnson’s government is aiming to vaccinate 14m people in the top priority groups, as set out by the independent Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation, by mid February. It will set out its road map for easing lockdown in England during the week commencing February 22.
Mr Harper, a former Tory chief whip, said that “there is still going to be some risk” when jabs have taken place and “as a society, we’ve got to settle on where do we think that balance is”.
He added that once the most vulnerable groups had been vaccinated, the laws for social-distancing restrictions should be repealed. “In a free country, you’d struggle to justify there being laws that prevent people from meeting and conducting themselves in a way that they are used to.”
The group Mr Harper chairs has over 90 Tory MPs as members, and they have held sway with Mr Johnson over his lockdown policy, notably urging the prime minister to loosen restrictions.
Mr Harper’s comments come as the daily count of positive test results continued to fall steadily across the UK with 188,907 cases reported in the most recent week, a decline of 29.5 per cent from the previous week.
While the improving picture on positive Covid tests is leading to fewer admissions to hospitals and beds occupied across the UK, these are still at very high levels. Daily reported deaths have only just started to decline.
The latest case numbers are also beginning to conflict with other surveys on the prevalence of coronavirus in the UK, which show worrying signs that although the wave of Covid-19 cases has passed its peak, the rate of decline in case numbers is slowing.
The Office for National Statistics reported that in its sample of swabs taken from the population in England, there had been a statistically insignificant fall in the proportion of people infected in the week ending January 23 compared with the previous week. It estimated that just over 1m people were infected in the latest period, representing one in 55 people.
The government’s estimate of the R number — which calculates how many people catch the disease from every infected person — widened its range to 0.7-1.1 in the latest week from a tighter spread of 0.8-1.0 last week. This reflected slowing declines of case numbers in the Midlands, the North of England and the South West.
The latest data came as Wales announced that children may be able to return to primary schools after the February half-term if the public health situation there continued to improve.
Welsh first minister Mark Drakeford said the country had made “steady progress”, with around 11 per cent of the population having received their first dose Covid-19 vaccination, while case rates in the country have fallen to below 200 per 100,000, for the first time since November.