Dominic Raab has rejected Tory rebels’ demand for a strict timetable for the lifting of lockdown, telling them the government must be “cautious and careful”.
The foreign secretary was asked repeatedly on Sunday morning about a letter signed by more than 60 backbench Conservative MPs calling for all restrictions to be scrapped by the end of April.
The Covid Recovery Group – led by backbench MPs Mark Harper and Steve Baker – wants schools to reopen by March 8, pubs and restaurants by Easter and all restrictions lifted by May.
Raab said the government was “optimistic about getting into a better place”, but added: “I think we’re also very cautious and careful because you can’t get ahead of the evidence of the impact of the vaccine on the transmission.”
Pointing out that hospitalisations and deaths were falling and that the R value had dropped to below 1 to between 0.7 and 0.9, Raab said: “That’s all good news.
“But you’ve got to be able to monitor it in real time, which is why saying what we’re going to do with precision and as a guarantee by the end of April and beginning of May is difficult at this stage.”
Boris Johnson is set to conduct a review of lockdown measures in the coming days.
Asked if schools would reopen on March 8, Raab said: “Yes, that’s what we’re aiming for and that’s what we’re committed to.”
Harper, who leads the Covid Recovery Group of MPs, published the list of demands on Twitter on Saturday night.
Harper told Times Radio on Sunday: “We’ve set out in the letter what we think is sensible. They’re not random, arbitrary timetables. It’s linked very much to the rollout of the vaccine.”
Raab has also dismissed the idea of a “blanket ban” on travel into the UK.
UK nationals or residents returning to England from 33 countries will be required to spend 10 days in government-designated accommodation from Monday.
But the South Africa variant has been detected in other countries, including Austria, which is not on the list of 33 countries.
Asked in a separate interview with Sky News’ Sophy Ridge if it is time to quarantine people arriving from all countries: Raab said: “I’m not sure that’s proportionate, and of course having blanket bans on any, for example, air travel into the UK would be very difficult for the supply chains, things like freight.”
Labour’s shadow health secretary Jonathan Ashworth, meanwhile, said he agreed with the government’s plans to gradually ease lockdown restrictions in England but listed the “fundamental Covid controls” that need to be in place.
Speaking to Andrew Marr on BBC One, he said: “We have to be driven by the data not just dates.
“We have to really slam the R number right down and push hospitalisations down.
“We’re still not paying people decent sick pay to isolate themselves.
“We should be looking at higher grade masks on public transport and in shops, like Germany, Austria and France are now recommending. We should be investing in ventilation and air filtration systems for public buildings.
“The national contact tracing system should be handed to NHS England and the local contact tracing should be handed to local public health directors.”