BEATING Covid is “on all of us,” Matt Hancock has insisted, as he said being able to hug a loved one could be allowed from mid-May south of the border as this is when the most vulnerable groups are expected to have received both coronavirus vaccine doses.
As the cautious easing of lockdown slowly begins across the country, the UK Government’s Health Secretary made clear he wanted to see the take-up of vaccines as high as possible. Yesterday, Boris Johnson admitted the roadmap to normality was only possible because of the “miracle” of the rollout of vaccinations.
“It’s absolutely on all of us to come forward and get the vaccine; it’s the right thing to do,” declared Mr Hancock.
“I want to obviously offer the vaccine to all adults by the end of July, that’s the target that we think that we can meet, and all over-50s by April 15, and we have been able to bring that forward.
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“But we are also, alongside that, working incredibly hard to encourage people to take it if they are unsure.”
The Secretary of State explained how the aim was to move to “personal responsibility” rather than relying on laws on social distancing, “that get in the way of normal life”.
He said: “Patrick Vallance[England’s Chief Scientific Adviser] was clear yesterday that mask wearing in winter is one of the examples of things that might need to stay.
“What we want to do is get rid of the social distancing-type laws that get in the way of normal life and move to personal responsibility, rather than laws dictating how all of us live our daily lives.
“But, it is also clear that eradication is unfortunately not possible with this disease, so we are going to have to learn to live with it. In the same way that, for instance, we live with flu, but we don’t let flu get in the way of living our lives.
“But we do vaccinate against it every year – in the case of flu we vaccinate those who are most vulnerable – and so I expect to have that vaccination programme as a regular feature of future life.”
From May 17 at the earliest in England, limited social mixing indoors will be permitted, which is around the stage people will be given advice on close contact between friends and family.
Mr Hancock said ministers would remain “cautious” until the most vulnerable had received both doses of the vaccine and gave this as a reason for the timing.
Asked about May 17 as a potential date for hugging to be allowed, he told BBC Breakfast: “We know that close contact is how this disease is passed on and so the reason for that timing is, by then, all of the most vulnerable groups will have been able to have two jabs.
“We know from the data that was published yesterday that the first jab is very effective in helping to protect you against catching Covid, or hospitalisation, or of course dying from it.
“But the second jab adds to that protection, adds further. But we do want to be cautious until the most vulnerable groups have been able to have both of those doses.”
Household mixing in England will not be permitted indoors until step three – not before May 17 – when people will be able to meet socially in a group of six or with one other household.
Around this stage, ministers will review social distancing rules between friends and family, potentially allowing hugging to return for the first time since the first lockdown in March last year.
“As soon as possible, and no later than step three, the Government will update its advice on social distancing between friends and family, including hugging,” it says.
“Until then, people should continue to keep their distance from anyone not in their household or support bubble and keep up habits such as regular hand washing and letting in fresh air.”
Mr Hancock told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme that he hoped staying overnight with friends and family would be permitted from May 17.
“So, I appreciate that that is some time, but that is the earliest that we thought it was safe to be able to take that step,” he added.
The Government has faced criticism from some Tory MPs over the pace of the easing, which will not see all legal controls removed until June 21 at the earliest.
Former minister Mark Harper, Chairman of the Covid Recovery Group of lockdown-sceptic Conservative MPs, said that, with uptake of more than 90% among those groups which had been offered the vaccine, the country should not be “held back” by those who refused it.
However, Dr Mike Tildesley, reader in mathematical modelling of infectious diseases at the University of Warwick and member of the Government’s advisory group SPI-M, warned that failure to ensure all communities are protected could lead to a new wave of infections.
“We know there are certain areas – in particularly inner city areas, deprived areas – where vaccine uptake is not as high and that poses a real risk that we are not capturing currently in those models; if we do get these pockets of infection, then it could be we could have a more significant risk.
“So, it’s really important we get the vaccines out to those deprived communities to prevent a potential wave of infections occurring as we do unlock.”
He added: “This is a real concern…that we may end up in a situation where we have the ‘vaccine rich’, as it were, who are able to access the vaccine, who have taken up the vaccine and are at much lower risk, and maybe the people in society who have not taken up the vaccine.
“Potentially, these individuals could be clustered in particular parts of the country, and there is increased risk there.”