The UK Government’s overriding goal is to protect the lives and livelihoods of citizens across Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland and England. For the benefit of the whole UK, the Government has secured access to more than 400 million vaccine doses, established the largest testing infrastructure in Europe, and provided an unprecedented level of financial support for businesses and individuals.
The COVID-19 Response sets out how the Government will continue to protect and support citizens across the UK and provides a roadmap out of the current lockdown in England. The Devolved Administrations are setting out how lockdown will be eased in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.
Vaccines are at the heart of the UK Government’s strategy to manage COVID-19. The UK is deploying the most ambitious vaccination programme in history. So far, over 17 million people have received a vaccine across the UK.
The Government has achieved its goal to offer a first dose of the vaccine by 15th February to all those in the four most vulnerable cohorts identified by the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation (JCVI). This includes elderly care home residents, those aged 70 and over, those with conditions that would leave them clinically extremely vulnerable to serious illness and death as a consequence of COVID-19, and frontline health and social care staff. The NHS has now started to vaccinate the next set of cohorts (JCVI cohorts 5 to 9), including adults aged 50 and over and people whose underlying health conditions make them more likely to suffer serious disease. The Government aims for everyone who is 50 and over, or at risk, to have been offered a first dose of the vaccine by 15 April, and for everyone aged 18 and over to have been offered a first dose by 31 July.
The success of the vaccination rollout, alongside falling infections and hospitalisations, is paving the way for the safe and gradual lifting of restrictions. Vaccines will mean that fewer people will get COVID-19 and that those who do are far less likely to go to hospital or to die. However, not all those offered the vaccine will take it up and there are some groups, such as children, for whom the vaccine is not yet authorised. Even when vaccinated, there is still a chance people can contract the virus and pass it on. No vaccine is 100% effective and, like all viruses, COVID-19 can mutate. As a result, as lockdown is lifted, there will sadly be more cases, hospitalisations and deaths. The Government will take a cautious approach to easing lockdown, guided by the data in order to avoid a surge in infections that would put unsustainable pressure on the NHS.
Increased vaccination reduces the risk of infection leading to severe disease or death. However, as with other diseases like the flu, some degree of risk will always remain. As social and economic restrictions are lifted, it will be increasingly important for people to consider the risks for themselves, taking into account whether they and those they meet have been vaccinated or have any pre-existing vulnerabilities. The Government has taken the best scientific advice from the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (SAGE) and its working groups on the pace and sequencing of reopening. This analysis is being published by SAGE to inform the public of the scientific and evidential basis that has helped to shape the roadmap.
Due to the relatively uniform spread of the virus across the country, the Government plans to ease restrictions at the same time across the whole of England. The roadmap seeks to balance health, including mental health, economic and social factors and how they disproportionately impact certain groups, as well as epidemiological evidence.
The roadmap set out in chapter 3 outlines four steps for easing restrictions. Before proceeding to the next step, the Government will examine the data to assess the impact of the previous step. This assessment will be based on four tests:
The vaccine deployment programme continues successfully.
Evidence shows vaccines are sufficiently effective in reducing hospitalisations and deaths in those vaccinated.
Infection rates do not risk a surge in hospitalisations which would put unsustainable pressure on the NHS.
Our assessment of the risks is not fundamentally changed by new Variants of Concern.
It takes around four weeks for the data to reflect the impact of the previous step and the Government will provide a further week’s notice to individuals and businesses before making changes. The roadmap therefore sets out indicative, “no earlier than” dates for the steps which are five weeks apart. These dates are wholly contingent on the data and are subject to change if the four tests are not met.
As restrictions are lifted, maintaining good habits which minimise transmission will be important, for both individuals and for businesses. The Test, Trace and Isolate system will continue to support the easing of social and economic restrictions. It will also be important in identifying local outbreaks and Variants of Concern. Strong measures are in place at the border to mitigate the risk of importing new cases and new variants. Where a dangerous Variant of Concern is identified and is likely to pose a real risk to the vaccination programme or public health, the Government will take a highly precautionary approach, acting fast to address outbreaks. The Government will also act quickly where an area sees unmanageable virus growth or the NHS is at risk, with local intervention centred on testing, communications and enforcement.
As restrictions ease and the economy is gradually and safely reopened, the Government will carefully tailor the level of support to individuals and businesses to reflect the changing circumstances. The March 3rd Budget will set out further detail on economic support to protect jobs and livelihoods across the UK. The Government will continue to provide support for the most vulnerable. Recognising that visits from family and friends are crucial for the wellbeing of care home residents of all ages, their families and friends, the roadmap includes more opportunities for visiting. Additional testing will also be provided to facilitate safer visits for residents in high risk Supported Living and Extra Care settings. The Government recognises that some groups within society have felt the impact of the pandemic more acutely, and is committed to addressing the longer-term implications of COVID-19 for those communities.
Over time, scientists expect COVID-19 to become endemic, meaning the virus will reach a stable, and hopefully manageable level. Vaccinations - including revaccination - will be key to managing the transition from pandemic to endemic state. Therapeutics and antivirals will become increasingly important, replacing most non-pharmaceutical interventions over the long-term. The Government is also committed to building resilience for any future pandemics, both domestically and on the international stage.