Professor Neil Ferguson, from Imperial College
Professor Adam Finn, from the University of Bristol and a member of the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation (JCVI), also struck an optimistic tone as he said ‘everything’s moving in the right direction’ on the jab rollout.
The interventions came as Boris Johnson prepares to hammer out the final version of his lockdown exit strategy over the weekend before unveiling it on Monday.
The Prime Minister is now said to be in receipt of all the latest data relating to the pandemic and the vaccine rollout which will underpin his plan of action.
Mr Johnson has said he wants the current national shutdown to be the last but Foreign Office Minister James Cleverly this morning admitted that cannot be guaranteed.
Meanwhile, official data suggested Britain’s R rate has fallen again, with estimates showing coronavirus cases have fallen in England by nearly 50 per cent in a fortnight.
SAGE scientists predicted the R rate – the average number of people each Covid patient passes the disease onto – was between 0.6 and 0.9 for the UK.
Last week it was estimated to be between 0.7 and 0.9, while two weeks ago they warned it could be above the crucial level of one – suggesting the outbreak was not shrinking.
Office for National Statistics data estimated 481,300 people in the nation would test positive for Covid-19 on any given day in the week to February 12, the equivalent of 1 in 115 people. This was 30 per cent below the levels the same time last week, and 43 per cent below two weeks ago when there were 846,900 cases.
For comparison, it was also 60 per cent less than in the darkest days of January at the peak of the second wave when there were estimated to be 1.2million cases.
Boris Johnson will unveil his eagerly-awaited lockdown exit strategy on Monday next week
The PM is facing growing pressure from some Tory MPs to speed up the easing of lockdown.
Many Conservative backbenchers believe the success of the vaccination drive should allow the Government to move quicker than has been suggested.
Mr Johnson has refused to be drawn on the specifics of his plan, but said earlier this week that it will be ‘based firmly on a cautious and prudent approach’ to ease restrictions in ‘such a way as to be irreversible’.
Prof Ferguson told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme that even with a cautious approach life could be very different by May as he said data on falling infection levels and the efficacy of the jabs is ‘looking promising at the moment’.
Asked whether the vaccine rollout could allow the PM to take bigger risks when it comes to reopening society, he said: ‘I think the downside in taking bigger risks is you risk having to lockdown again which is even more disruptive economically and socially.
‘So… I am encouraged by the cautious approach being taken and the incremental approach which I think will be adopted, namely relax one thing, see what that impact is, relax again.
‘It still may well be that by the end of May we are in a very different country than we are today.’
Asked if that could mean being back to normal or life just being easier than it is now, Prof Ferguson replied: ‘I think more the latter than the former. We will still have rules in place but we may well, I think society will be a lot more normal.
‘That is if things pan out as we hope they will and as the current data suggests it will.
‘There are threats out there. We don’t know for instance quite how effective the vaccines are, how long immunity will last, there is the threat of variants, so we have to be driven by the data and the trends we see.’
Prof Finn told the same programme on the impact of the vaccines: ‘We’ve now got to the point where the study we’re doing in Bristol where we can say with certainty that there is definitely an effect.
‘It’s just hard to put an exact number on it at this point because… the numbers of cases coming through are still building up, the number of people who’ve been vaccinated are still going up, but it’s becoming clearer for the Pfizer vaccine, which we’ve been using for a month longer, since early December, and it’ll take slightly longer for us to get a firm handle on just how well the AstraZeneca vaccine is preventing hospitalisations too, but they’re definitely doing the job.’
It came as Mr Cleverly told Sky News that the Government cannot guarantee that this will be the last national lockdown.
He said: ‘Well, we do want it to be the last lockdown. That is what we are working towards. We can see that the actions that we have taken have had a positive effect.
So long as the mammoth operation stays at the current speed, the UK could offer jabs to all 32million vulnerable Britons before the end of March. But not everyone will get vaccinated, meaning No10 may be able to expand the roll-out even sooner
‘The vaccine rollout has been very, very successful – that will all be having a positive effect.
‘But ultimately no one can predict with complete certainty what the vaccine will do, how it might evolve.
‘We are taking the right action, we are doing the right things and we very, very much hope that this will be the last lockdown.
‘We can’t give complete, 100 per cent certainty because viruses don’t work like that.
‘But we know we are doing the right things, we can see it is having an effect and we are assessing just how that effectiveness is playing out in the real world so we can make the announcement early next week.’
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