THIS evening’s Downing Street press conference saw Prime Minister Boris Johnson joined by senior NHS and medical chiefs to provide updates on Covid vaccinations, infection rates and lockdown restrictions.

Information was given on the latest coronavirus numbers in terms of cases, hospitalisations and deaths.

Mr Johnson delivered the broadcast alongside England’s chief medical officer Professor Chris Whitty and NHS England chief executive Sir Simon Stevens.

The number of Covid-19 patients in hospital in England stood at 17,730 as of 8am on Monday, February 15, according to the latest figures from NHS England.

This is a week-on-week drop of 23 per cent from the 23,020 coronavirus patients in hospital in England on February 8 and down 48 per cent from a peak of 34,336 on January 18.

Below are the details of what was said during the press conference on the evening of Monday, February 15.

Hospital situation

The Prime Minister said there were still more hospital patients with Covid-19 than at the peak of the first wave and admissions were running at 1,600 a day across the UK.

He told the Downing Street press conference: “We have to keep our foot to the floor.”

The next million invitation letters were offering appointments for a vaccine to the over-65s and those aged 16-64 with underlying conditions, as well as adult carers.

He added: “If we can keep this pace up and if we can keep supply steady – and I hope and believe we can – then we hope to offer a vaccination to everyone in the first nine priority groups, including everyone over 50, by the end of April.”

Boris Johnson called for people to be “optimistic but also patient” about the situation.

Bournemouth Echo: Prime Minister Boris Johnson. Picture: PAPrime Minister Boris Johnson. Picture: PA

He said next week’s “road map” would set out “as much as we possibly can about the route to normality, even though some things are very uncertain”.

The Prime Minister said: “We want this lockdown to be the last. And we want progress to be cautious but also irreversible.”

Vaccination progress

Mr Johnson said the vaccination programme continued to “power past” the targets set for it but warned it was not the time to ease up on efforts to tackle the virus.

The Prime Minister said: “This is an unprecedented national achievement but it is no moment to relax.

“In fact it is the moment to accelerate because the threat from this virus remains very real.”

Although more than 90% of over-70s had been vaccinated, some 60% of hospital patients with Covid-19 were under that age.

The Prime Minister said there were “grounds for confidence” that vaccines were helping to curb the spread of coronavirus, not just in protecting those who received the jab.

Mr Johnson said: “Although the vaccination programme is going well, we still don’t have enough data about the exact effectiveness of the vaccinations in reducing the spread of infection.

“We have some interesting straws in the wind, we have some grounds for confidence but the vaccinations have only been running for a matter of weeks.

“While we are learning the whole time, we don’t, as I talk to you today, have all the hard facts that we need.

“And the level of infection remains very high.”

Professor Whitty said the number of people in hospital in the UK with coronavirus is coming down but the “rates are still very high”.

“They are around the point, in fact slightly above the point, which they were at the peak of the epidemic in April last year,” he told the press conference.

“So these are still very high rates but they are definitely heading in the right direction.”

Prof Whitty said death rates remained high but are continuing to go down.

He also stressed that protection from coronavirus vaccines is not immediate, but comes after two or three weeks.

“Then people will have a second vaccine and that’ll strengthen the level of protection and also make it more long lasting – so it is absolutely essential that when people are asked to go back for their second vaccine they do so.”

Bournemouth Echo: Professor Chris Whitty, left, speaking during the press conferenceProfessor Chris Whitty, left, speaking during the press conference

Sir Simon said the end of April has been set as the target to vaccinate the top nine priority groups due to “likely vaccine supply” but added that “if supply increases then we think we can go faster”.

He said: “As well as opening up the invitations to more than 14 million new people in England – in the groups that we’re now talking about – we’ve also got the second doses to administer for those who have had their first dose.

“And when we look at the likely vaccine supply that we will have available to us between now and the end of April, that appears to be what we can do.

“If supply increases then we think we can go faster. But that at the moment represents still a doubling of the number of vaccines delivered over the next 10 or 11 weeks compared to those that have been delivered over the last 10 weeks.

“So it is a pretty substantial ramp-up in this second sprint that we’re about to embark on.”

Lockdown latest

Mr Johnson urged people to take reports on the easing of lockdown restrictions “with a pinch of salt”.

The Prime Minister said: “We don’t really yet have sufficient clarity on the data to be sure now, today, as of this Monday 15th exactly what we’ll be able to say to you on Monday 22nd.

“That’s because the data becomes clearer with every day that passes and we have to continue to evaluate.

“And also, to be absolutely clear, these decisions we will take in the course of this week but they are not yet taken.

“And I would just humbly advise anybody reading accounts of what we are going to do… at such and such a time in the course of the next few months to take them with a pinch of salt, folks, because this is still speculation.

“When I explain on the 22nd what we are going to do you will be hearing it directly from me.”

Mr Johnson said he hopes there “isn’t that much longer to go now” with severe lockdown measures.

However, he admitted he could not guarantee there would be no further lockdowns although he stressed that “science is now unquestionably in the ascendancy over the disease”.

The Prime Minister said: “I can’t give that guarantee, of course not, because we are battling with nature, with a disease that is capable of mutating and changing.

“I’m increasingly confident, I’m increasingly optimistic about the sheer extent of the possibilities that are opening up with vaccinations.

“I will be setting out as much of a timetable as we can give on the 22nd and I’m very hopeful that we will be able to go ahead and open things up.”

Vaccine passports are not preferrable

The Prime Minister suggested mass vaccination and rapid testing were preferred to making it mandatory for people to take the jab in order to access jobs and services in the UK.

He did not completely rule out the prospect of a domestic “vaccine passport”, telling the press conference “we will look at everything” but he stressed: “What we are thinking of at the moment is more of a route that relies on mass vaccination – we intend to vaccinate all of the adults in the country by the autumn – plus lateral flow testing.”

Those rapid tests would help “the toughest nuts to crack” including nightclubs and some theatres which had been unable to open last year.

“I think that will be the route that we go down and that businesses will go down,” he said.

“You are already seeing lots of business using the potential of rapid, on-the-day testing as well. I think that, in combination with vaccination, will probably be the route forward.”

But it was “still early days, there are lots of discussions still to be had”.

Bournemouth Echo: Professor Chris Whitty, Prime Minister Boris Johnson and Sir Simon Stevens at Downing StreetProfessor Chris Whitty, Prime Minister Boris Johnson and Sir Simon Stevens at Downing Street

Virus origins

Mr Johnson said it is “fairly obvious” that most evidence points to coronavirus having originated in Wuhan, as he backed calls for countries to agree to share data on diseases that jump from animals to humans.

The Prime Minister said: “It is fairly obvious at the moment that most of the evidence seems to point to the disease having originated in Wuhan, that seems to be where the consensus is at the moment.

“Therefore I think we will need to see as much as we possibly can about how that might have happened, the zoonotic questions that people are asking, I think we need as much data as possible… “I think what the world needs to see is a general agreement on how we track data surrounding zoonotic pandemics, we want zoonotic research hubs around the world, and we want a general agreement on transparency.

“I think one of the attractive ideas that we’ve seen in the last few months has been a proposal for a global treaty on pandemics so that signatory countries make sure that they contribute all the data they have and we are able to get to the bottom of what has happened and stop it happening again.”

Mental health

A member of the public called Hannah, from Glasgow, asked whether the next press conference could feature a mental health specialist.

In response, Mr Johnson said: “Hannah, I think you’re making a very valid point and we will try and find the right person to say something about how to do this and how to encourage everybody to really look after our mental wellbeing and try and keep going through this pandemic.

“Because I hope that there isn’t that much longer to go now but clearly people have been under a lot of pressure and we’ve got to address that.”

Hotel quarantines

People going into hotel quarantines from abroad should be able to “cover their costs,” the Prime Minister said.

Mr Johnson was asked by a journalist what would happen if someone staying in a hotel had to extend their stay due to a positive test.

In response, Mr Johnson said: “It is currently illegal to travel abroad for holidays anyway.

“We would expect people who are coming in from one of these red list countries to be able to cover their costs.”

Vaccine boosters

There is “reasonable evidence” a Covid-19 booster shot will be needed in the autumn, Professor Whitty said.

Responding to a question from a member of the public called Sara from Basingstoke, Professor Whitty said: “In terms of Covid-19 revaccination, there are essentially two reasons potentially to do this. One of which is if immunity is starting to wane and we don’t really know how long we will have to have between revaccinations.

“It might be a long period, it might be short. It is too early really to tell.

“And the second reason is if we end up with variants of the virus that can escape around the immunity which the vaccine provides.

“There’s, I think, reasonable evidence that we may have to do that this year because there are several variants that look very similar to one another in many ways which actually could have slightly reduced – not completely reduced but slightly reduced or in some cases more than slightly reduced – effectiveness from the vaccine.

“In which case we then redesign the vaccine – scientists redesign the vaccine – and that allows us to revaccinate against the new variant.”

‘Hesitancy’ to get jab

England’s chief medical officer suggested for some people there was “hesitancy” rather than an outright refusal to take a vaccine.

He told the Downing Street press conference: “Many people may not take it up immediately but will take it up subsequently.

“It’s not a matter of refusal, it’s a matter of thinking about it and then actually moving on to do so.

“All of us think this is critical, to support people to make sure we combat misinformation.”

Prof Whitty said he was meeting medical leaders from different ethnic groups on Monday night “to share experiences and share how we can work out how to make sure people are getting absolutely accurate information that makes clear that the risks of the vaccine are massively lower than the risks of getting this infection”.

NHS England boss Sir Simon said there was a battle against a “pandemic of disinformation” over the vaccine but there had been “meaningful progress” in take-up among black and Asian communities.

Bournemouth Echo: NHS England chief executive Simon StevensNHS England chief executive Simon Stevens

He said: “There is a real concern about the hesitancy on the part of some black and South Asian communities to accept the vaccine offer they are receiving, either at work if they are a health or social care worker, or as a member of the public.

“What is happening about that is that there is a huge effort involving community leaders, faith leaders, the way in which the NHS itself is administering the vaccine programme to overcome that.

“Although the start was slower in terms of the uptake in some of those communities, I think we are now seeing meaningful progress.”

Sir Simon added: “Part of what we are up against is a dual epidemic – we are up against the pandemic of Covid and we are up against the pandemic of disinformation and the deliberate sowing of mistrust and we have got to fight both with equal vigour.”