The number of people infected with coronavirus has fallen dramatically over the past month.
In the West Midlands, the number fell from 1.66% of the population in January, one in 60 people, to 0.33%, or just one in 300 people.
There’s been a fall across the country too. In England as a whole, the number with the virus is down from 1.57% of the population to 0.51%. In other words, it’s fallen from one in 64 people to one person in 196.
The figures come from a study commissioned by the NHS and produced by Imperial College London. It found that in England as a whole, the number with the virus is down from 1.5 7 % of the population to 0.51%. In other words, it’s fallen from one in 64 people to one person in 196.
Data like this was presented to Prime Minister Boris Johnson late last week. It’s the type of information that will help him draw up a “roadmap” for ending the lockdown.
While there has been speculation for weeks about how and when the lockdown will end, most of it has been premature. Mr Johnson couldn’t make any firm decisions until he had the information in front of him.
It’s likely that work on the roadmap has continued over the weekend. Of course, Mr Johnson isn’t working on it alone – he’s helped by the Government’s scientific advisers, and consults cabinet colleagues. But he has the final say, and the buck stops with him. He’s also the person who will set out the plans, in a statement to the House of Commons on Monday.
Questions the Prime Minister is considering include the infection rate, the impact that the vaccination programme is having and concern about new variants of Covid which may may some resistance to current vaccines – although it appears that the current vaccines do drastically reduce the chance of dying or becoming seriously ill.
He will also consider the progress being made in vaccinating the nation. The Government has succeeded in its aim of offering everyone over 70 a vaccination by February 15, and hopes to vaccinate everyone aged 50 and over by April 30.
In fact, there have been reports that Ministers believe it may be possible to beat this target by some weeks.
We already know, however, that there will be no sudden end to the lockdown. Restrictions will be lifted slowly, and the best we can hope for on Monday is that Mr Johnson will set out a timetable, giving some indication when shops, pubs and venues such as gyms will be able to re-open.
Even this may lack some details. Mr Johnson will be wary of making detailed promises about the weeks and months ahead, because he can’t be certain what the future holds. It’s better to be a little vague than to make predictions that don’t come true.
The Prime Minister has changed the way he talks about the pandemic. In the early days, he was full of optimism about the prospects of defeating the virus and returning life to normal – and came in for criticism when some of that optimism proved to be unfounded. Now, he is far more cautious in what he says. So he may set vague ambitions for opening up some sections of the economy, rather than naming specific dates he can’t be 100% certain of meeting.
What can we expect? The Government will me re-opening schools a top priority. Initially, the plan was to talk about schools later in the week, on Thursday, but Mr Johnson will find it hard to avoid talking about education as part of Monday’s roadmap.
Ministers have previously talked about March 8 being the day that schools could begin to re-open. This is because the vaccines take three weeks to be effective, and March 8 is three weeks after February 15, the date by which the most vulnerable should all have had a vaccination.
Everything that re-opens has a tendency to push up the infection rate – whether that’s schools, shops or pubs. So the Government will stagger re-openings.
That means it could be a good month or so before further changes are introduced. While we don’t know the dates, the next priority after re-opening schools is believed to be getting higher and further education students back in lecture theatres, and re-opening non-essential shops.
After that comes bars and restaurants – though they may well face some restrictions even once they re-open – followed by some sporting facilities.
Finally comes entertainment venues, such as concert halls and theatres, and other sporting venues.
Businesses affected by the lockdown want the Prime Minister to set out clear dates, so that they can plan ahead. But the Prime Minister will be wary of making any firm promise about future events which he can’t be entirely certain of keeping.
The roadmap statement shouldn’t be seen in isolation.
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While Mr Johnson will talk about the way out of lockdown (and Education Secretary Gavin Williamson may say more about schools on Thursday), Chancellor Rishi Sunak is due to deliver his own key statement the week after.
He will deliver his Budget statement on March 3. And while he will have to deal partly with the impact of Covid, talking about issues such as Universal Credit and the furlough scheme, he will also want to talk about how the country moves on after Covid.
Labour leader Keir Starmer delivered a speech last week in which he stated that the UK should not return to “business as usual” once the crisis is over, but should instead “think again about the country that we want to be”.
He criticised the Conservative promise to “build back better” after Covid, suggesting it meant they want to “go back”.
But the message from the two main parties is really very similar – that the country needs to rebuild its economy, but shouldn’t aim simply to recreate the circumstances that existed before coronavirus struck. Instead, Conservatives will argue that the rebuilding should also be about creating a fairer society, particularly in the sense of fairness between different parts of the country, with more opportunities created for regions such as the North and the Midlands.
Whether the Conservative government has the policies to bring this is about, is of course a matter for debate. And many Labour MPs also question whether the Tories are sincere in their stated commitment to the North.
But certainly, Conservatives will argue that their plans to turn the North into an economic powerhouse are not only alive and kicking, but have been give extra urgency by the Covid pandemic. Next week’s lockdown roadmap and the March 3 Budget will be two sides of the same coin.