Boris Johnson will confirm hugs from Monday at 5pm briefing

The UK today confirmed another 2,357 coronavirus cases and four deaths as the country’s Covid alert level was downgraded from four to three suggesting the virus is ‘in general circulation’ and not rising. 

Both figures mark increases on last Monday’s numbers, although that was a bank holiday and the counts are so low that even relatively small changes can appear to have a big effect. The longer-term trend remains flat. 

Health chiefs say infections, hospital admissions and deaths have ‘fallen consistently’ over the past few months thanks to strict social distancing measures and the huge vaccination drive. 

Another 187,171 people got their second doses yesterday, meaning 17.86million are fully vaccinated, and another 100,626 got their first jab, taking the total to 35.47m. 

And real-world data published by Public Health England today shows that a single dose of the Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccine cuts the risk of Covid death by 80 per cent and two doses of Pfizer’s jab slash it by a massive 97 per cent. 

Health Secretary Matt Hancock said the proof was ‘life-changing’ and added: ‘The vaccine is saving thousands of lives and giving us hope on our road to recovery.’

The chief medical officers’ threat level downgrade will inevitably be used as fuel for scientists and Tories desperate for a quicker return to normal. Even one of No10’s scientific advisers on a sub-panel of SAGE has claimed restrictions could be ‘safely accelerated’. 

The Prime Minister has been repeatedly urged to stick to his ‘data, not dates’ pledge for easing restrictions in England, despite refusing to budge in the face of very low infection rates and a hugely successful vaccination drive. Deaths have fallen into single figures while cases are at similar levels to September.

Boris Johnson will tonight unveil a major loosening of lockdown on May 17, using a 5pm press conference to say the immunisation campaign has given him room to manoeuvre.

Pubs, restaurants and cafes across England will be able to seat customers inside again while gatherings of up to six people or two households will be allowed indoors. Hotels, B&Bs, cinemas, theatres and museums are to reopen while limits on funeral mourners are scrapped.  

With one in three adults now having had two jabs, friends and relatives are also expected to be able to hug for the first time in a year. 

In a round of interviews this morning, Health Minister Nadine Dorries said: ‘I am hopeful that we will all be hugging and kissing again soon indoors.’ 

The move to downgrade the alert level — agreed by all four of the UK's chief medical officers and a senior NHS official — means the coronavirus is now only in 'general circulation' and transmission is no longer 'high or rising exponentially'

The move to downgrade the alert level — agreed by all four of the UK’s chief medical officers and a senior NHS official — means the coronavirus is now only in ‘general circulation’ and transmission is no longer ‘high or rising exponentially’

Boris Johnson (pictured running this morning) will herald a return to freedom tonight, vowing that 'Covid will not beat us'. On the back of stunning Tory local election victories, he will say the success of the vaccine rollout allows for further easing of lockdown

Boris Johnson (pictured running this morning) will herald a return to freedom tonight, vowing that ‘Covid will not beat us’. On the back of stunning Tory local election victories, he will say the success of the vaccine rollout allows for further easing of lockdown

Bolton is revealed as UK hotspot for new Indian Covid strain as infection rates soar 

Public health officers in Bolton are going door-to-door in a bid to control the spread of the B16172 Indian coronavirus variant.

Indian variant cases have soared over the last week and Public Health officials say almost half the cases are related to travel or contact with a traveller.

The cases are spread across the country, however, the majority of the cases are in London and the North West, predominantly Bolton.

Residents living in the Bolton boroughs of Rumworth, Deane and Great Lever are being told to expect a knock on the door.

They will be told about new measures in place to stop the transmission of the variant.

Dr Susan Hopkins, Covid-19 strategic response director at Public Health England (PHE) said: ‘We are monitoring all of these variants extremely closely.

‘We have taken the decision to classify this as a variant of concern because the indications are that this VOC-21APR-02 is a more transmissible variant.’

Bolton has been revealed as the UK hotspot for the new Covid 19 strain detected in India which has been escalated to a ‘variant of concern’.

Urgent measures to contain the variant are in the works in the town including surge testing and a strengthened vaccination campaign urging people to get the jab.

Areas within the BL3 postcode in Bolton, Greater Manchester, registered a small number of cases of the variant, leading to widespread testing.

There are 520 confirmed cases of the strain in the country, up from 202 the previous week. 

Ms Dorries also set hares running by seeming to suggest the June 21 date for ending lockdown altogether could be brought forward — although No10 insisted Mr Johnson will not be making any announcements on that tonight. ‘It is data, not dates and the data is very good,’ Ms Dorries said.

The Covid Recovery Group (CRG) — a group of around 70 Tory MPs — today called for Mr Johnson to commit to scrapping all social distancing measures on June 21 to ensure the nation is ‘truly on the “one way road to freedom” that the Prime Minister promised’.

Sir John Bell, Oxford University’s regius professor of medicine, said England was in a ‘very strong position’ to move forward with the easing of restrictions which will enable people to ‘try and get back to normal’. He told ITV’s Good Morning Britain programme the prospect of people being able to hug their loved ones again was ‘great’.

On the Government’s ultra-cautious roadmap, he said: ‘I think we’ll still probably go steady but perhaps a bit faster, I’ll be interested to see what the Government announces. I’m feeling pretty comfortable with where we are at the moment.’

Legislation in the Queen’s Speech tomorrow will be directed at the nation’s recovery from Covid, backing the NHS and spreading opportunity.     

In other coronavirus news:

  • The head of the Oxford vaccine group predicted Britons would soon be living without masks and social distancing;
  • The Daily Mail-backed campaign for a national memorial for Covid victims at St Paul’s Cathedral topped £1.3million;
  • Michael Gove said officials were involved in talks over moving the UEFA Champions League final from Turkey to the UK to save fans of Chelsea and Manchester City from a travel ban;
  • The nurse who gave the first ever Covid-19 vaccination, May Parsons, proposed a National Thank You Day should take place on July 4;
  • Dr David Nabarro, the World Health Organization’s special envoy on Covid-19, called for a cautious return to normal life as he said ‘we can’t go on mothballing ourselves forever’;
  • The cost of flying to Portugal plunged over the weekend with Ryanair putting on dozens of flights to Faro, Lisbon and Porto shortly after the country was cleared for quarantine-free trips from May 17;

Despite the alert level being downgraded to three today, health chiefs warned Britain isn’t out of the woods yet.

A statement from the chief medical officers for England, Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales as well as NHS England national medical director Stephen Powys said: ‘Following advice from the Joint Biosecurity Centre and in the light of the most recent data, the UK chief medical officers and NHS England national medical director agree that the UK alert level should move from level four to level three.

‘Thanks to the efforts of the UK public in social distancing and the impact we are starting to see from the vaccination programme, case numbers, deaths and Covid hospital pressures have fallen consistently.

‘However Covid is still circulating with people catching and spreading the virus every day so we all need to continue to be vigilant. This remains a major pandemic globally.

‘It is very important that we all continue to follow the guidance closely and everyone gets both doses of the vaccine when they are offered it.’

Britain was at level five during the peak of the second wave in January because there was a ‘material risk of healthcare services being overwhelmed’. 

The UK’s alert level was last downgraded at the end of February, when it went from five to four because the immediate threat to the NHS had ‘receded’. 

Mr Johnson gathered ministers this morning to approve moving to step three of the roadmap out of lockdown next Monday after the Government said the latest data confirmed its four tests for easing restrictions had been met.

Officials believe that lifting the curbs is unlikely to risk a resurgence in virus infections.

At a press conference in Downing Street this evening, Mr Johnson will say: ‘The data reflects what we already knew – we are not going to let this virus beat us.

‘The roadmap remains on track, our successful vaccination programme continues – more than two thirds of adults in the UK have now had the first vaccine – and we can now look forward to unlocking cautiously but irreversibly.

‘It’s because of the British public’s unwavering commitment that we are saving lives, protecting the NHS and controlling the virus.’ 

Ms Dorries told Sky News this morning hugs and physical contact are ‘massively important’ and that the roadmap is ‘on course’. 

She said: ‘I think it’s what most people have missed, that intimate contact with family and friends, and entertaining, having people in your own house, meeting outdoors.’ 

Ms Dorries added: ‘It does look as though the roadmap is on course, but we do so with caution, ensuring that the data is in place and looking forward to – and with excitement to – the fact that we will able to hug our family and friends soon.

‘So, caution balanced with optimism, I think, is the way forward.’

Tory MPs have been pushing for faster progress, with scientists including Professor Carl Heneghan, director at the Centre for Evidence Based Medicine at Oxford, suggesting it would be a good idea.

Professor Heneghan told The Telegraph that ‘it’s going to be difficult to open everything up in a big bang’. 

But he added: ‘I think at some point we’ve got to get back to a normality and see what happens. And we want to do that when it’s summer and infections are low.’

Professor Mark Woolhouse, an epidemiologist at the University of Edinburgh, told the newspaper: ‘I think there is scope for moving more quickly. 

‘In my view, it could be safely accelerated. I’d go further and say that this has been the case for several weeks. I’d judge that the UK is already close to a point that we didn’t expect to have reached until late June.

‘I understand the desire for caution but this lockdown, like all lockdowns, is causing harm. Restrictions may have been justified in February but they are much harder to justify now.’

Professor Sir John Bell said data from vaccination programmes from the UK, Israel and the US showed a ‘rather rapid fall-off’ in cases of disease, hospital admissions and deaths. 

He said: ‘There’s some very interesting data that shows that even from a single dose of vaccine, when you move from where the US was a couple of weeks ago, which was about 43 per cent of people having a single dose through where we were with 51 per cent – we’re now higher than that to Israel, which was 58 per cent.

Don’t hug too much, keep them short and wear a MASK: SAGE scientist warns embraces should be kept to a minimum

Don’t hug too often, keep embraces short and avoid face-to-face contact, is the message from No10’s cautious scientific advisers ahead of the next major relaxation of Covid rules.  

Boris Johnson will announce England’s next steps out of lockdown at a 5pm Downing Street press conference today, where he is expected to confirm that friends and can hug each other again from May 17. 

Professor Cath Noakes, who sits on SAGE, has urged caution ahead of the relaxation, warning that too much hugging could ‘perpetuate’ Covid’s spread. 

She advised that if people are going to hug others, it should be restricted ‘to very small numbers of close family who perhaps you really value a hug from’ and suggested wearing masks to be safe.

‘I think don’t hug too frequently, keep it short, try and avoid being face-to-face, so perhaps turn your face away slightly, and even wearing a mask could help,’ she told the BBC. 

Professor Noakes, an expert in airborne infections at the University of Leeds, backed allowing vaccinated grandparents to hug their grandchildren, claiming that the risk of transmission was very low, even though it was not zero.

But she said it would worry her if ‘we were advocating we could hug all of our friends every time we meet them again’. 

This would ‘perpetuate an awful lot of additional close contact that could spread the virus’, she added. 

‘You see a rather rapid fall-off in cases of disease, but also hospitalisations and deaths, and it’s a really very striking fall in all those things.

‘I do think that we’re in a very strong position to go forward now with fewer restrictions and try and get back to normal.’

Almost 15million men and women in England now have ‘maximum protection’ against the virus, having received two doses of the vaccine. Two in three adults – 29.6million – have had at least one dose.

The Government said it was on track to offer all adults a first dose by the end of July.

Infection rates are at the lowest level since September and hospital admissions continue to fall, or plateau in some areas, with levels similar to those seen in July last year.  

Health Secretary Matt Hancock said of the jab success: ‘This milestone is yet more evidence of the huge national vaccination effort we are in the middle of.

‘I pay tribute to the huge team – NHS staff, councils and of course our wonderful volunteers who are working so hard to deliver vaccines in all parts of the United Kingdom.

‘The vaccine is our way out of this pandemic and tens of thousands of lives are being saved but the job is not yet done. I urge everyone, when the time comes, to get the jab.’

The ongoing success of the vaccination drive has increased hopes of a return to something close to normal life by the last stage in the PM’s roadmap, scheduled for June 21.  

Professor Andrew Pollard, the chief investigator of the Oxford vaccine trial, said: ‘There is a future with no social distancing and no more masks, but from a global perspective we’re still a long way from that.

‘Here in the UK we’ve had remarkable success through the vaccine programme and that is getting closer to happening.’ 

Dr David Nabarro, special envoy on Covid-19 for the World Health Organisation, said that ‘we can’t go on mothballing ourselves forever’ as he pushed for a cautious reopening of society. 

He told Sky News: ‘I’m pleased with the reality that people are being quite cautious, perhaps even a little bit afraid, of what this virus might bring.

‘But I think, at the same time, we’ve got to get on with life, and we can’t go on mothballing ourselves forever.

‘So, finding a way to restart, despite this fear, is what I think we will have to do. We must maintain a very vigilant posture in the coming months because there will no doubt be variants appearing.

With one in three adults now jabbed twice, the Prime Minister will declare that friends and relatives can – from next Monday – hug for the first time in a year

Pubs (pictured: Friends drink in a pub last year), restaurants and cafes across England will be able to seat customers inside again. And gatherings of up to six people or two households will be allowed indoors

With one in three adults now jabbed twice, the Prime Minister will declare that friends and relatives can – from next Monday – hug for the first time in a year (left, grandparents hug their grandchildren). Pubs (pictured right: Friends drink in a pub last year), restaurants and cafes across England will be able to seat customers inside again. And gatherings of up to six people or two households will be allowed indoors

Vaccinated Britons who catch Covid get a milder form of the disease and suffer fewer tell-tale symptoms, study warns

Vaccinated Britons who catch Covid experience a milder illness, according to data from a symptom-tracking app.

King’s College London epidemiologists found only a third of those with at least one dose got the ‘classic’ symptoms — a high temperature, new continuous cough and loss of taste and smell.

For comparison, among people who had not been jabbed more than half suffered the normal warning signs.

Numerous studies have found coronavirus vaccines currently being deployed in the UK are very effective at stopping people spreading the virus or becoming infected, and drastically cut the rates of hospitalisation and death. 

But no jab is perfect. Some vaccinated people will still get infected, meaning they could be struck down with symptoms. 

Scientists point out, however, that the symptoms they suffer are far ‘less severe’ than if they had not been vaccinated.

More than two thirds of adults — 35.3million — have now received at least one dose of the Covid vaccine. Almost 18million adults — 33.5 per cent — are fully inoculated.

‘But, at the same time, we have to get on with life so we have to just be on the lookout for new spikes of disease and deal with them when they come.’

Dr Nabarro said he would urge people to maintain social distancing and keep using face masks in the future. 

‘On the one hand we’ve got a dangerous virus, on the other hand we must get on with life because it just can’t go on with the restrictions that people have had up till now,’ he said. 

‘Finding that middle path, how to live with this virus’s constant threat, is key.

‘If I were able to talk to everybody personally over the coming weeks, I would say: You must restart life and everybody wants you to do that, but please be really careful, maintain that physical distance of between one metre and two metres, especially indoors, and don’t forget to wear your face masks because that really can give extra protection.

‘It’s these simple things, but all done together that will really make the difference as to whether or not future spikes are huge or future spikes are small and easily contained.’

Speaking on the BBC’s Andrew Marr Show yesterday, Minister for the Cabinet Office Michael Gove said it was ‘the case that friendly contact, intimate contact, between friends and family is something we want to see restored’. 

The prospect of customers being allowed back to indoor hospitality settings has been welcomed by business chiefs. 

John Foster from the Confederation of British Industry said: ‘It’s encouraging to see the roadmap remains on track, with the certainty it’s provided businesses so far already appearing evident in recent economic data. All firms should be commended for their continuing efforts in keeping staff and customers safe.

‘The Government can inject further momentum into the economic recovery by providing companies with clarity on outstanding issues, including social distancing, Covid status certificates and the future of workplace testing beyond June 21.

‘Getting answers will help business cement the gains so far, laying strong foundations for the recovery, and support the planned full reopening of the economy without delay.’

The continued smooth progress through the different stages in the PM’s roadmap has prompted increased economic optimism. 

The Bank of England forecast last week that the UK economy would grow 7.25 per cent this year – the fastest peacetime rate in nearly a century.

Two-thirds of adults have now had their first Covid jab as Britain passes another vaccine milestone

ByStephen Adamsand Anna Mikhailova For The Mail On Sunday

Britain yesterday passed another vaccine milestone with more than two-thirds of adults now given a Covid-19 jab.

According to the latest figures, 35,188,981 people – the equivalent of 66.8 per cent of the adult population – have had their first dose of vaccine. Of those, 17,214,436, comprising 32.7 per cent of adults, have had their second shot.

Health Secretary Matt Hancock tweeted: ‘The vaccine is saving lives so when it’s your turn, come forward & get the jab.’

The number of positive tests, hospital admissions and deaths have all fallen in the past week

The number of positive tests, hospital admissions and deaths have all fallen in the past week

The milestone came as just five deaths and 101 new hospitalisations were reported, down a quarter on figures last Saturday.

Despite the loosening of lockdown restrictions, there were 2,047 positive tests in the previous 24 hour period, down five per cent week- on-week. The success of Britain’s vaccination programme contrasts with Germany, where 39 per cent of adults have had their first jab, and France, where it is just 33 per cent. 

Despite the progress in the battle against Covid-19, Boris Johnson’s former adviser Dominic Cummings launched a fresh attack on his handling of the crisis. Promoting a book by US statistician Julia Galef, Mr Cummings suggested that if the ’20 most influential people dealing with Covid’ in the Government had read her book The Scout Mindset, then ’10s of 1000s who died cd still be alive’. 

The book encourages people to act like a scout who ‘surveys the land, seeking accuracy and understanding’ rather than like ‘soldiers’ who ‘protect… beliefs aggressively and ignore any evidence that we might be wrong’.

Another missed chance to tackle social care crisis: Queen’s Speech will NOT include relief for families with elderly relatives… two years after Boris Johnson vowed to deliver his plan  

By Claire Ellicott, Political correspondent for The Daily Mail

Ministers are set to miss another chance to tackle the social care crisis this week.

Detailed measures to fix the broken sector are not expected in tomorrow’s Queen’s Speech despite Boris Johnson earlier suggesting they would be.

Instead, the Government has vowed to set out plans in the coming ‘weeks and months’ but these may not come in front of Parliament before the end of the year.

Yesterday campaigners called for decisive action as a poll showed that voters want reform of the care sector.

The survey found that two-thirds think social care should be a top priority while nearly half do not believe that ministers care enough about older people and their needs.

What you CAN expect from the Queen’s Speech 

– Crime Bill to keep dangerous offenders in jail for longer and tackle knife crime by extending the use of stop and search

– Online Harms Bill to tackle social media

– Plans to tackle the backlog of NHS operations and cancer treatment due to Covid

– Environment Bill, which will set legally binding emissions targets ahead of the UK-led Cop26 climate summit

– Bill on skills and education to help young people find jobs and boost skills

– Animal Welfare Bill to ensure animals are recognised as sentient beings, increase sentences for animal cruelty and ban trophy hunters importing endangered ‘prizes’

Earlier this year, Mr Johnson said it was ‘highly likely’ that ministers would bring forward a clear plan to ‘fix’ the problems in the Queen’s Speech.

But sources have now indicated there will be a reference to social care plans in the speech but they will not actually be set out, suggesting any measures are not ready.

Wrangling between No 10 and the Chancellor about the huge costs of reform – perhaps as high as £10billion a year – is said to have delayed progress.

Instead, new animal rights laws and the controversial policing Bill are likely to be included when the Queen sets out the Government’s legislative programme in her speech in the House of Lords.

Asked yesterday if a plan would be announced tomorrow, Cabinet Office minister Michael Gove indicated this was unlikely. 

‘We’ll be saying more about social care in the weeks and months to come,’ he told Sky News’s Sophy Ridge show.

Asked why there was still no plan, Mr Gove said ministers had ‘quite rightly’ been concentrating on dealing with the Covid-19 pandemic. 

‘People will also expect, of course, a new plan for social care to be developed and that plan will be unveiled later this year,’ he added.

In a later interview, Mr Gove said a reform plan will be ‘heading for the statute books’ by the end of the year. 

‘We’re working to make sure we have an effective social care plan. That work is going on,’ he told Times Radio.

‘So, by the end of the year you will have a specific plan heading for the statute books. We want to make sure that we can get cross-party support.

‘That’s the point the Prime Minister has always made. The more support we can get for it, the quicker we can be.’

In March, Mr Johnson told the Commons liaison committee it was ‘highly likely’ social care reforms would be in the Queen’s Speech. 

He said a ten-year plan was needed to bridge ‘the gulf between the NHS and social care into which so many fall’. 

In his first speech as Prime Minister in July 2019, Mr Johnson had declared: ‘We will fix the crisis in social care once and for all with a clear plan we have prepared.’ However, little progress has been made.

Yesterday’s poll on the issue was carried out for care charity MHA. Chief executive Sam Monaghan said: ‘There have been green papers, white papers, commissions, reviews, yet still the system remains broken. What we now need is decisive action.’

Vic Rayner, chief executive of the National Care Forum, added: ‘We need to move from rhetoric to action. Now is the time for long-term ambition not yet another quick fix.’

A Department of Health and Social Care spokesman said: ‘Improving the adult social care system remains a priority and we will bring forward proposals later this year.’