When we interviewed Matt Hancock this week, he was clear that the government isn’t going for herd immunity through vaccination. Instead, the government is seeking to use the vaccine to protect the vulnerable and break the link between cases, hospitalisations and deaths. Once that is done, the government will start to ease restrictions. Crucially, he was also clear that the government now regards the first shot as the most important metric when counting vaccinations.
In his Monday night address, Boris Johnson said that if the government could succeed in giving a first shot to the first four groups in the vaccination programme by mid-February then the government would start ‘cautiously, to move regions down the tiers.’
If the government is to hit this target it will have to be vaccinating around two million people a week. If it can keep that pace up (and it should be able to given the amount of the Oxford vaccine it has pre-ordered), then the 28 million people who make up the phase one vaccination list – which, as Jonathan Van-Tam has said, account for 99 per cent of deaths and hospitalisations – should have received their first shot by the end of the first week in April. At that point, by Hancock’s logic, it would be time to, as he put it, ‘cry freedom’ and abolish the restrictions.
What seems certain is that there is going to be a political row about the timetable for opening up. Tory MPs, and particularly those in the Covid Recovery Group, favour a big easing once the 13.5 million most vulnerable people have been vaccinated. However, Jonathan Ashworth implied in the Commons on Wednesday that the risks of long Covid mean Labour would favour keeping some restrictions in place even once the most vulnerable have been vaccinated. There will also be a debate about whether easing restrictions should wait for people to have had their second shot, so that they have the maximum level of protection, or whether the first shot is sufficient for that.
The likely timetable we are looking at, providing the vaccine roll out goes fairly smoothly, is a return to the tier system in late February with schools retuning and some limited opening up. Then, two to three weeks after the 28 million have had their first shot, the sweeping away of the current rules; they’ll certainly be huge pressure from the Tory benches for that to happen.
If the government can maintain a pace of two million injections a week, that should be in late April. I suspect this is why Hancock is so confidently declaring that ‘we are going to have a great summer.’ But given the problems with track and trace and the like, people won’t begin to share this confidence until they see the government regularly hitting that two million a week mark.