The government will not be setting an “arbitrary target” for when lockdown can be lifted despite pressure from some MPs to scrap all restrictions by the end of April, the foreign secretary has told Sky News.
Dominic Raab said the plan was to “ease the lockdown” with the return of schools, which Prime Minister Boris Johnson has previously said will happen on 8 March at the “earliest”.
More than 60 Conservative backbenchers are said to have backed a letter to the PM from the lockdown-sceptic COVID Recovery Group (CRG), which said there will be “no justification” for restrictions to remain once all over-50s have been offered a jab.
But Mr Raab told Sky’s Sophy Ridge on Sunday programme: “The plan is to get the 99% of people at risk of dying dispensed their first dose by the end of April, or certainly offered their first dose.
“By doing so, taking the fatality out of this virus, we’re in a much better position to proceed to start to ease the lockdown… starting with schools, non-essential retail.
“I don’t think you can set an arbitrary target and not be evidence led, which is why the review on 22 February is so important.”
Mr Johnson is planning to unveil a roadmap for easing England’s lockdown on 22 February.
Mr Raab told Sky News that the government is “hoping” for schools to reopen in England on March 8 as planned.
“We need to wait to evaluate the data carefully and allow those plans to be put in place,” the foreign secretary said.
“Because we are making progress I think we can be confident we will be able to start that process of getting schools open on the 8th.”
Mr Raab said getting non-essential retail open will be “very important” and “things like the ability to socialise with people outside…are quality of life issues, they really matter so they’re not small thing”.
But he warned the government would take a “careful” approach towards the easing of restrictions.
“We have made good progress,” Mr Raab said. “We don’t want to see that unravel because we go too far too quick.”
The CRG has described reopening England’s schools on 8 March as a “national priority” that must be achieved, and said pubs and restaurants should be allowed to open in a COVID-secure way by Easter.
The group wrote: “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 vaccine gives us immunity from COVID, but it must also give us permanent immunity from COVID-related lockdowns and restrictions.”
Mr Raab, however, said the government will not make a “slightly arbitrary commitment” on lifting lockdown “without reviewing the impact that measures have had on the transmission and the hospital admissions of the virus”.
The foreign secretary also confirmed the government is “on track” to meet its target of offering a coronavirus jab to the 15 million people in its four top priority groups by Monday.
This includes older care home residents and staff, everyone over 70, all frontline NHS and care staff, and those who are clinically extremely vulnerable.
As of Saturday, the number of UK adults given one dose of a coronavirus vaccine has risen to 14,556,827.
NHS staff are also going to begin vaccinating the over-65s and clinically vulnerable from Monday, with more than a million people having already received their invitations to book a jab.