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Rishi Sunak fears scientific advisers are "moving the goalposts" on the requirements for ending lockdown amid growing frustration within the Government.
The Chancellor is concerned that scientists have replaced the original target of protecting the NHS and saving lives with a focus on getting case numbers down, potentially delaying the end of the restrictions. He has told allies that Britain is approaching a "fat lady sings moment" when lockdown must be lifted, never to return.
On Wednesday, Boris Johnson announced that more than 10 million people – almost one fifth of the adult population – have now had at least one vaccine dose, describing it as a "colossal" achievement.
It follows the publication of evidence that vaccines slash transmission rates and new data showing that one in seven over-16s in Britain has already had Covid, which has increased the clamour among MPs for a faster lifting of lockdown.
But members of the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage) have said case numbers must come down "a lot further" before schools can reopen. Government sources have pointed out that case numbers will become largely irrelevant if the vaccination programme means the virus no longer causes deaths or serious illness.
Chris Whitty, the chief medical officer, confirmed for the first time that the peak of the current wave has now been passed, with infections, hospitalisations and deaths all in steady decline.
Prof Whitty also said it was "a matter for ministers" whether England follows the example of Scotland and Wales by reopening schools this month and pointed to the "medical and educational" advantages of children being back in the classroom.
The Conservative Party's most senior backbencher said "unremittingly good news" about vaccines undermined Mr Johnson's "logic" in keeping schools shut until March 8.
But the Prime Minister said that while case rates, hospitalisations and deaths were coming down, they remain "forbiddingly high" as he stuck to his plan to publish a roadmap out of lockdown on February 22.
Another 19,202 positive Covid tests were reported on Wednesday – a 72 per cent drop from the January peak – with 1,322 deaths, meaning the seven-day total has dropped by 13 per cent. Hospital admissions have fallen by 22 per cent over the past seven days.
An ally of Mr Sunak said: "Rishi remains where he has been throughout the pandemic – he is pro opening as quickly and as safely as possible.
"This needs to be the last time we do this. This is the fat lady sings moment. We can't lock down again. Rishi is concerned that the scientists have been moving the goalposts in recent weeks. It's no longer just about hospitalisations and protecting the NHS but cases and case numbers.
"Now the target seems to be that we need to keep cases down overall, which wasn't the original aim of the lockdown. Six months ago, the goal was protecting the most vulnerable who end up hospitalised with Covid. Over the last few weeks, the goalposts seem to have shifted with the new variants. The talk has switched to becoming Covid-free."
Another Cabinet source said other Government departments, including transport and business, had also expressed concerns about the targets for lifting lockdown becoming ever harder to meet.
This week, Calum Semple, a member of Sage, said March 8 might be "too soon" to reopen schools and virus transmission had to come down "a lot further" first.
At a meeting of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Coronavirus on Tuesday, Professor Anthony Costello, a former WHO director, told MPs only areas with Covid-19 cases of under 100 in 100,000 per day could reopen schools safely.
Sir Graham Brady, the chairman of the 1922 committee of backbench Tory MPs, said a study this week that showed the AstraZeneca jab substantially cut transmission rates was "unremittingly good news", adding: "The logic of what the Prime Minister said about schools not reopening until March was predicated on waiting until studies showed the vaccine was working.
"Now we have strong evidence – from this study and from Israel – that the vaccine leads to a big fall in transmission and recipients of the jab being admitted to hospital."
Prof Whitty said Britain was now "past the peak", adding: "That doesn't mean you could never have another peak. But at this point in time, provided people continue to follow the guidelines, we're on the downward slope of cases, of hospitalisations and of deaths in all four of the nations of the United Kingdom."
Asked whether there was an argument for opening schools before March 8, he said: "I don't think anyone disputes that being in school is good for children. It's good for their mental health, it's good for their long-term health."
Mr Johnson said: "We don't want to be forced into reverse, and so we think this is the prudent and cautious approach."
The former Conservative leader Sir Iain Duncan Smith said: "We have to be careful we don't hand over the Government to the scientists. When we say we're following the science, sometimes it has been a case of following the scientists.
"As the vaccine rollout continues apace and we have now learned that we are unlikely to transmit it, we need to go back to normal."
The latest figures show Britain is on track to meet targets to offer vaccines to everyone over the age of 70 – a total of 14.6 million people – by February 15, with daily statistics showing an extra 374,756 people receiving their first dose.
Ministers have briefed Tory MPs that the exit from lockdown will be national, phased and involve intervals of two to three weeks between the easing of each tranche of measures.
On Wednesday, Julian Jessop, an independent economist, told MPs he expected the economy to bounce back to pre-Covid levels as early as the third quarter of this year.
He told the Treasury Committee: "If the economy does rebound as strongly as I expect and the public finances continue to beat the forecasts at the Office for Budget Responsibility, which so far they have been, then I think we've got a good chance of getting through this crisis without the need to raise taxes.
"This year is going to be when the drag from Brexit starts to fade. I personally do think GDP will be back to pre-Covid levels later this year, perhaps as early as the third quarter of this year."