Covid: UK 'past the peak' but levels 'forbiddingly' too high to relax lockdown

  • Video report by ITV News Political Correspondent Carl Dinnen

It is too soon to imagine the relaxation of lockdown restrictions in England, with infection levels of coronavirus "still forbiddingly high", the prime minister has said, though the UK is thought to be "past the peak".

Boris Johnson said the UK's Covid vaccination programme has provided "some signs of hope", with 10 million people having received their first jab, but he warned the NHS is still "under huge pressure".

The PM said his plan remains to set out a plan, on February 22, for an exit out of lockdown but the "level of infection is still forbiddingly high for us to imagine relaxation of currently guidelines".

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Responding to a member of the public at a Downing Street press conference, Mr Johnson said he will be reviewing England's restrictions "in the days ahead".

England's chief medical officer Professor Chris Whitty said he and most of his medical colleagues "think we are past the peak", but that doesn't mean there won't be another one.

He said "provided people continue to follow the guidelines, we are on the downward slope of cases, hospitalisations and of deaths in all four nations of the United Kingdom.

"So we do think, at this point, this peak at least, we are past."

The prime minister has previously said he will review coronavirus restrictions on the week commencing February 15 before revealing his plans around a week later.

It is hoped the 15 million people most vulnerable to Covid-19 will have been vaccinated by then, allowing for a phased reopening of schools to begin on March 8.

Mr Johnson said he remains "very hopeful" that the government can stick to that timetable, but that date is the earliest time they will be able to reopen.

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With the news that the Oxford vaccine may reduce transmission of the virus, Mr Johnson was asked whether it was possible for schools to reopen ahead of time.

Mr Johnson that is unlikely because it will take three weeks for those vaccinated by February 15 to build up protection against the virus, and schools need two weeks notice before they can reopen.

"What we don't want to do now that we are making progress with the vaccine rollout and we have got a timetable for the way ahead, we don't want to be forced into reverse," he said.

"We think this is the prudent and cautious approach. I think it is much better to stick to that."

Professor Whitty said that while the number of people in hospital with coronavirus has "quite noticeably" reduced, it is still above that of the first peak in April last year.

"The number of people in hospital with Covid has now gone down from its peak, quite noticeably...

"But as the Prime Minister said, there are still a very large number of people in hospital, and more people than there were in the first peak in April last year.

"So this is still a very major problem, but it is one that is heading the right way." Prof Whitty said the number of deaths would "stay high for quite some time".

The press conference followed the news that a further 1,322 people had died within 28 days of testing positive for Covid-19 as of Wednesday.

It means the UK's official coronavirus death toll is 109,335.