Daily Covid-19 cases fall 41% in a week to 22,195 - the lowest since December 15 - and deaths hold steady at 592 as Boris faces pressure from Tory MPs to 'show us the way out of lockdown'

  • Boris Johnson has caused confusion by suggesting some lockdown measures could be lifted in mid-February 
  • In same interview the Prime Minister repeatedly refused to guarantee that schools will reopen before Easter
  • Comments left No10 scrambling to clarify mid-February is earliest possible point and nothing likely to change 
  • Many headteachers now believe schools will remain closed until April or May with announcement expected
  • Tories are up in arms with education committee chair Robert Halfon among those voicing serious concerns
 With new cases of covid infection lowering considerably and pressure on Boris Johnson to ease lockdown, the PM is on a balance between pleasing Tory members and risking another outbreak on pandemic.

Britain today recorded the fewest corona virus cases in a day since December 15 with 22,195 more people testing positive – a 41 per cent drop on last Monday – and new deaths remained level at 592, down one per cent in a week.

The latest numbers came as Boris Johnson is facing growing pressure from Tory MPs to lay out his lockdown exit strategy after he triggered confusion this morning by hinting 'some' curbs could be eased in mid-February.

But he defied a growing Conservative mutiny by refusing to guarantee that schools will re-open by Easter. The PM said ministers will be 'looking at the potential of relaxing some measures' with the four most vulnerable groups on track to have been given vaccines by February 15. 

But in comments that muddied the water even further, he stressed that infections are still 'very high' and only pledged that children will be back in the classroom 'as soon as possible' - despite demands for a firm timetable and accusations he is putting the economy above education.

The mixed signals left Downing Street scrambling to clarify that February 15 is merely the 'earliest point' that the rules will be reviewed, and the expectation is that they will remain the same. Gavin Williamson has committed to giving parents and teachers at least two weeks' notice, suggesting that there is no prospect of schools in England coming back until at least March. 

The remarks were particularly bewildering as ministers are preparing to toughen the border crackdown within days, with all UK arrivals facing the prospect of enforced quarantine in airport hotels at their own expense. 

It came as Health Secretary Matt Hancock today announced that 78.7 per cent of people over the age of 80 in the UK have had a Covid vaccine as he confirmed 6.6million people have been vaccinated.

That means nearly one in 10 people across the country has had at least one dose that could protect them against deadly Covid-19, and the Government is nearly halfway through its drive to hit 15million by mid-February.

Britain is ahead of any other country in Europe in its vaccine drive and has one of the highest per-person rates in the world.
On a visit to a vaccination site at Barnet Football Club in north London this morning, Mr Johnson was asked whether he would give a schedule for getting schools back up and running.

 Children's commissioner Anne Longfield called for efforts to be stepped up to avert the 'enormous impact' of keeping classrooms close. But unions said it is not likely to be possible to reopen schools before May - and some scientists have warned the R rate could be driven above one again.

'We're looking at the data as it comes in, we're looking at the rates of infection, as you know the JCVI predicts (the four most vulnerable groups will be) vaccinated by February 15, but before then we'll be looking at the potential of relaxing some measures,' Mr Johnson said.

'But don't forget this country has made huge progress in reducing infection, I don't think people want to see another big surge in infection.' He said the Government was taking a 'responsible and cautious' approach, and added on schools: 'Daily we're looking at the data and trying to work out when we're going to be able to lift restrictions.

'Schools obviously will be a priority but I don't think anybody would want to see the restrictions lifted so quickly while the rate of infection is still very high so as to lead to another great spread of infection.' 

Tory MPs and education experts have been escalating their demands for the Government to find a way to get more children back in classrooms. Ministers have admitted there is a strong case for teachers to be given priority in the next phase of the vaccine rollout.

However, others point to the lack of evidence that schools staff are at greater risk than any other frontline workers. 

It comes as latest Public Health England figures show 142 out of 149 local authorities in England saw infection rates fall in the most recent recording week, in another sign the winter wave is being curbed by the draconian lockdown. 

No10 was forced to pour cold water on the prospects of an early easing of lockdown today after his comments.

The PM's spokesman said: 'The prime minister was just making clear that... we continue to look at the latest evidence in terms of the transmission of the virus, the number of people hospitalised, and the number of people who sadly go on to die.

'And he was making the point that ahead of February 15, which as you know is the review point, we will look at that evidence closely, and that will inform what we may or may not be able to ease from the 15th onwards.' 

Schools is emerged as the next big battleground between ministers and lockdown sceptics, but many supporters of the drastic restrictions also want to see them reopened fully. 
Senior Conservatives are up in arms about the long-term damage to the prospects of children - demanding an immediate route map for how classrooms can get back up and running.

However, Commons Speaker Lindsay Hoyle has rejected a request to summon Education Secretary Gavin Williamson for a grilling this afternoon, despite expectations that he will announce in the coming days that schools cannot return after the February half-term, and possibly not for many months.
Matt Hancock warned yesterday that coronavirus cases were a 'long, long way' from the level where lockdown can be eased.

Extending the school shutdown for most pupils would mean millions needing to rely on remote learning and parents having to juggle home schooling with work, with experts warning it will hit mental health and widen the learning gap for the poorest.

Education committee chair Robert Halfon has joined calls for a 'route map' to classrooms reopening fully, which are backed by the former chief whip Mark Harper, chair of the Tory lockdown-sceptic CRG group.  

Meanwhile, senior backbencher Tom Tugendhat swiped at the government for keeping borders open while schools are shut. 
'Close the borders, vaccinate the teachers, open the schools!' he said.     

Despite widespread fears that Easter is now the target date for schools, Mr Williamson wrote in the Mail today that he cannot give any exact timings. 

Other sources said the April timeline was 'speculative' and that Mr Williamson remained committed to getting children back as soon as the scientific evidence allows.

Mr Halfon said he was 'hugely worried' about the 'impact on mental health, on educational attainment, on safeguarding' as schools are shut.

He told Times Radio: I'm not a lockdown sceptic – I voted for all of the Government measures – but I am a permanent school-down sceptic.'

He added: 'We're creating a 'have and have not' society with some children doing remote learning and disadvantaged children doing much less.'

He went on: 'I think that everything the Government is doing is directed towards the economy and health which is perhaps understandable, but I think education is perhaps the most important thing we can do as a society because it is about our coming generation.'

Mr Harper repeated his demand for the Government to start loosening lockdown from early March, when the first phase of the vaccine rollour should have taken effect.

He told BBC Radio 4's Today programme: 'At that point you need to start bringing the economy back to life, and the first thing that needs to be reopened are our schools so our children can get back, mix with their friends, and enable their education and their social development to take place.

'What we are asking for now is the Government to set out that plan and bring some clarity.'

He said teachers do not need to be vaccinated in order to get schools back, but added: 'I certainly welcome vaccinating teachers once we have vaccinated the first nine priority groups.'
Children's Commissioner for England Anne Longfield has said families need 'hope and clarity' about what will come next for children's education.

She said schools should open 'as soon as possible' and called on ministers to set out at Downing Street press conferences what progress is being made towards reopening.

Ms Longfield warned that the closure of schools has had an 'enormous impact' on children – affecting their mental health and widening the gap in learning.

'Children are more withdrawn, they are really suffering in terms of isolation, their confidence levels are falling, and for some there are serious issues.'

She added: 'This is something for which families around the country will need hope and clarity about what comes next, and that of course is what the speculation we're hearing really feeds into – that confusion – but also worry about where they as a family go from here.'

Union boss Geoff Barton, General Secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, said today there should be a 'phased' return of children to school - accusing the Government of 'defeatism' over getting schools open again. 

Conservative MPs ratcheted up the pressure today with a stark warning that the current crop of schoolchildren face becoming 'the forgotten generation'.

The MPs have backed a campaign by the parents' pressure group UsforThem to fully reopen schools. 

The group includes the former Cabinet minister Esther McVey and Sir Graham Brady, chairman of the influential 1922 Committee of Tory backbenchers, according to the Telegraph
As recently as last Thursday, Mr Williamson said that he hoped schools would be able to reopen before Easter, although Downing Street pointedly declined to endorse his comments.
Kevin Courtney, co-general secretary of the National Education Union, said talk of reopening before Easter sounded 'optimistic' and warned: 'It could be as late as May.'

Speaking to broadcasters yesterday, Mr Hancock said he held out hope that schools in England could possibly reopen by Easter, but sounded a negative tone by warning infections levels were still extremely high.

'We have got to look at the data. We have got to look at the impact of the vaccination programme,' he said.

Last week Mr Williamson said the Government would give parents and teachers 'good notice' of reopening.

'We'd aim to give teachers, pupils and parents two weeks' notice so they're able to get ready and we'll always be looking for how we can get schools open for all at the earliest possible moment,' he said.

Schools in England were told to close again from January 5, after some primaries had been back for just one day after the holidays, with Boris Johnson admitting they may act as 'vectors of transmission' despite being safe for pupils.

To address the blow to children, the Government is planning to expand its tutoring initiative to help those most at risk of getting left behind.

The Department for Education is hoping to provide 15 hours of tuition in the next academic year for 450,000 disadvantaged children, up from its current target of 250,000.

But, to add to parents' headaches, the eventual reopening of schools is not expected to be consistent across the country.
Deputy chief medical officer for England Dr Jenny Harries told MPs last week that a regional approach may be taken when deciding how schools reopen, with London potentially first to see pupils returning to classrooms.

Appearing before the education committee, Dr Harries responded to questions about schools by saying: 'I think it's likely that we will have some sort of regional separation of interventions.'

She added that there were 'glimmers of hope' in London, which was first affected by the new variant, and so could be first to recover.

It comes as Matt Hancock yesterday revealed teachers have a 'good shout' of being high on the vaccine priority list.
Hundreds of top schools are offering to allow their premises to be used for the vaccination of all teachers over the February half-term.

They say that trained staff will be on hand for the inoculation blitz, which could then allow all schools to reopen – an innovative idea revealed in The Mail On Sunday.

Yesterday, the Health Secretary said that while those at highest risk of death needed to be protected first, there was a 'perfectly reasonable debate' about who should be next.

Speaking on Sky's Sophy Ridge On Sunday, he said: 'Supply [of vaccine] is the rate-limiting factor. The question is who should have each dose as it comes in... and we've taken the decision, quite rightly, to go through in order of clinical need, starting with those who are most likely to die from this disease.

'We're going through those who are clinically vulnerable... and after that there's a perfectly reasonable debate to be had about who should go in what order next... Teachers have got a good shout to be very high on the list and those discussions are going on.'

Currently, the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation lists teachers alongside those in the military, justice and transport systems as being in the second phase for jabs.
It comes as latest PHE figures revealed 142 out of 149 local authorities in England saw a fall in infections in the week ending January 17, the most recent recording period.

The biggest decreases were recorded in the Isle of Wight, where the rate fell almost 50 per cent from 1,170 per 100,000 to 593.
The London boroughs of Bexley and Barking and Dagenham saw a similarly steep fall.

Infection rates tumbled from 1,043 per 100,000 to 579, the equivalent of 45 per cent, in the south-east borough of Bexley.
While the rate dropped 41 per cent from 1423 to 840 in Barking in East London.

Rounding out the top five was Brighton and Hove, where case rates fell from 713 per 100,000 to 428 , a 40 per cent drop.
Every London borough saw a decrease in case rates, after bearing the brunt of the winter wave before the national lockdown.

Other big drops were recorded in Tower Hamlets and Lewisham (both -39 per cent), Bromley, Camden, Newham, Kensington and Redbridge (all -38 per cent), and Enfield and Kingston (both -37 per cent).

Only five areas – Plymouth, Solihull, Shropshire, Leicester and Barnsley – saw cases increase in the week up to January 17.
Newcastle upon Tyne and Dudley saw their case rates stagnate, remaining at 275 per 100,000 and 659, respective.

Source: Daily mail

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