British Prime Minister Boris Johnson on Monday said the “escape route” from the coronavirus was in sight as he announced that tough restrictions in England would not be extended beyond December 2.
“The breakthroughs in treatment, in testing vaccines mean that the scientific cavalry is now in sight,” he told parliament.
“We know in our hearts that next year we will succeed. By the spring these advances should reduce the need for the restrictions we’ve endured in 2020.
“We have turned a corner and the escape route is in sight,” he said, while warning that “Christmas cannot be normal and there’s a long road to spring”.
Johnson announced that England would re-enter a tiered system of toughened regional restrictions when the current lockdown expires on December 2, bolstered by major testing programmes in areas with the highest rates.
The easing of restrictions will see people permitted to leave their homes for any purpose, with public religious ceremonies and certain leisure activities once again allowed.
Up to 4,000 spectators will be able to return to sports stadiums and live performances in low-risk parts of England, while pubs can reopen if they are not in the highest tier.
The prime minister also announced a “time-limited” dispensation for families to gather for Christmas.
“We all want some kind of Christmas, we need it,” he said in a statement from Downing Street, where he is self-isolating after coming into contact with an MP carrying the virus.
“What we don’t want is to throw caution to the wind and allow the virus to flare up again,” he added.
“Families will need to make a careful judgement about risk of visiting older relatives.”
The prime minister’s short-term plan revolves around mass rapid testing following a trial in the city of Liverpool which the government said had led to a “substantial fall” in cases.
The system is now being piloted in the state-run National Health Service (NHS) and in care homes, which it is hoped will allow residents to meet with visitors again.
If succesful, it will be extended nationwide and to the general population.
– ‘Not without end’ –
Downing Street has said the tiered system will be similar to the one in place before the lockdown, but more restrictive in some areas.
The government, under pressure because of the economic impact of the outbreak, is due to announce on Thursday which tier each region will fall under.
Britain has seen more than 55,000 deaths from some 1.5 million cases — one of the worst rates in the world — and has been grappling to control a second spike of infections.
Health Secretary Matt Hancock told BBC radio on Monday that “the top tier is going to have to be tougher than the previous top tier”.
“We need to make sure we bring the virus down, not just flatten it,” he said.
Johnson’s announcement came after British drugs group AstraZeneca and the University of Oxford on Monday said they would seek approval for their vaccine against Covid-19 after it showed an average effectiveness of 70 percent.
“The most hopeful advancement of all is how vaccines are now edging ever closer towards liberating us from the virus, demonstrating emphatically that this is not a pandemic without end. We can take great heart from today’s news,” Johnson said.
“The NHS is preparing a nationwide immunisation plan ready next month, the likes of which we have never witnessed,” he added.