Conservative MPs have put pressure on Boris Johnson to ignore scientific advice to keep pubs and restaurants shut until May, as the hospitality sector warned such measures could help kill off more businesses.
Mark Harper, chairman of the Covid Recovery Group (CRG) – made up of lockdown-sceptic Tory MPs – said the Government “must start easing restrictions” by early March when the most vulnerable will have a level of immunity against coronavirus after receiving their vaccine.
It comes after a team of experts modelling the pandemic called for hospitality venues to remain closed until May, warning that reopening society too quickly could have a “disastrous” effect.
The research suggested that even if 90% of people are vaccinated against coronavirus, 10% would still be at risk of serious infection.
The Prime Minister, speaking to reporters on Thursday, said it was “too early to say when we’ll be able to lift some of the restrictions” after being asked whether the lockdown could last into the summer.
But industry chiefs have painted a bleak picture to what such an elongation of lockdown controls could do to the sector, with protestations that “there would be very little left” once restrictions are finally lifted.
And lockdown critics on the Government’s backbenches have also waded in, telling ministers “businesses need to be able to plan our recovery as more and more of the vaccinations are rolled out”.
The CRG’s Mr Harper said: “Covid causes serious harm and it’s vital we control it effectively.
“But this cycle of lockdowns and restrictions cause immense damage too – to people’s health, livelihoods and businesses.
“Once the top four risk groups have been vaccinated and fully protected by March 8 – assuming the Government hits the February 15 deadline – the Government must start easing the restrictions.
“Vaccinations will of course bring immunity from Covid, but they must bring immunity from lockdowns and restrictions too.
“People must see light at the end of the tunnel and feel hope for the future, and businesses need to be able to plan our recovery as more and more of the vaccinations are rolled out to the most vulnerable groups.”
Kate Nicholls, chief executive for UKHospitality, told BBC Radio 4’s World at One: “If we are pushed back to reopening in May that will be seven months that the sector has been closed without revenue and we would really struggle to survive through this.
“If we are forced to wait for a longer period then unfortunately there will be very little left of the hospitality sector and the 3.2 million people who work in it to reopen at that point in May.”
Emma McClarkin, chief executive of the British Beer and Pub Association, said pubs across the UK will be lost for good if they cannot reopen until May.
She said: “The Government has a duty to tell publicans when it plans to let them reopen with a clear roadmap alongside the vaccination programme.
“If it won’t be until May then it needs to extend financial support for them to survive and to brewers whose businesses also face jeopardy.”
Labour joined the sector in calling for extra cash support for the hospitality industry should restrictions last beyond April.
Shadow business minister Lucy Powell said: “We’ve already seen the worst recession of any major economy, and unless ministers put in place a comprehensive, long-term plan to give businesses a shot in the arm, we’ll see huge numbers going bust, with the loss of tens of thousands of jobs and livelihoods as a result of Government failure.”
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