THE GOVERNMENT will have to pass four tests before Brits can be released from lockdown restrictions, one expert has warned.
An NHS chief has told Prime Minister Boris Johnson that he should focus on "data and not just dates", before easing lockdown.
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Chris Hopson, chief executive of NHS Providers, which represents NHS trusts in England has written to the PM to discuss what requirements need to be met.
Brits are currently living under a third national lockdown which was imposed at the start of the year.
The first lockdown had been in March last year when the pandemic first swept the UK and the second was in November, with just a four week lockdown.
Mr Johnson is due to unveil a roadmap on February 22 as to how we will leave lockdown and earlier this week he said that he hoped this lockdown would "be the last".
Cases have slumped since the start of January and are now the lowest since October, boosting hopes of an easing of coronavirus restrictions.
But the PM's roadmap will insist on reviews that could postpone the reopening of shops, pubs and restaurants until numbers drop into the hundreds, it has been reported.
Mr Hopson this morning explained what would be needed if Brits were to exit lockdown and highlighted that the NHS is likely to remain "at full stretch" for at least another six week, and cautioned the PM when it comes to easing restrictions early.
But what are the four things that need to be done before restrictions can be eased?
Fall in cases
Data from Public Health England (PHE) suggests that infection rates are falling across most of England with just a handful of areas witnessing a rise in infections.
Fewer cases of coronavirus mean fewer hospitalisations and fewer deaths.
Speaking to BBC Radio 4's Today Programme Mr Hopson added: "The case numbers need to come right the way down so we don't get the bounce back that we saw in the North of England last year when we eased the restrictions".
Mr Hopson said he did not want to speculate what level case numbers should reduce to before restrictions were lifted but he cited Office for National Statistics (ONS) data which estimates that 695,400 people in England have Covid-19.
He added: "I think there is a pretty clear view is that number needs to come down to around 50,000."
He said it was the government's job to set the threshold as to where cases needed to be as "they have the data and we don't".
Mr Hopson added: "Members of Sage last week were saying that daily cases numbers were at 9,500, some members of Sage are suggesting it needs to come down to 1,000.
"We need to follow the data and it's the government's job to set out in the roadmap what that's going to be."
Cases are due to fall below 1,000 by the start of April if they continue at their current downward rate.
When pubs and restaurant reopened last July after the first lockdown, recorded daily case rates were around 370.
Reduce pressure on the NHS
A rise in cases leads to more hospitalisations, which is turn puts pressure on the NHS.
Mr Hopson said: "We've got to ensure the NHS has got the capacity that it needs to treat all the patients it's required to treat, we have currently got 17,000 patients in English hospitals."
Mr Hopson highlighted: "We had 500 Covid patients in hospitals in September and yet, 15 weeks later, we had 34,000 patients, and we were perilously close to overwhelmed.
"So, what that says to you is that you just need to be really careful before you start relaxing the restrictions prematurely."
Last month there were around 37,000 people in hospital with Covid in the UK with 4,032 on ventilators.
Data from the government's coronavirus dashboard shows that this has dropped off significantly.
At present there are 21,001 patients in hospital with Covid-19 and 2,805 requiring support from a ventilator.
Each patient admitted to hospital with Covid is treated for around three weeks.
Mr Johnson previously said that if the lockdown was lifted too soon, the NHS could come under more pressure.
Government experts have not given a figure as to how many hospital admissions would be acceptable for the government to lift restrictions.
So far in the UK over 15.5 millions people have received a first dose of either the Pfizer/BioNTech jab or the Oxford/AstraZeneca offering, with over half a million have received their second dose.
Those who have been jabbed already include the most vulnerable in society as listed by the JCVI (Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation).
Residents in care homes and their carers were first in line to be jabbed as well as the over 80s.
Mr Hopson said: "We need to ensure that we have made sufficient progress with the vaccinations.
"Let's not forget that the JCVI said that it's only when you've done the top nine priority groups that you get to 99 per cent mitigation of the risk of death, not the top four groups that we have done."
The government has said that it is aiming to vaccinate the top nine groups by April.
Mr Hopson agreed that this would be the "logical point" that we can start to consider easing restrictions.
Last week Health Secretary Matt Hancock urged people over 75 who had not yet received their jab to contact the NHS to organise inoculation.
Some areas of the country have already starting jabbing their over 65s and after they have received a jab, all adults who have underlying health conditions will be invited to be vaccinated.
Experts from Edinburgh University previously warned that relaxing all measures at the end of April – once all those in the first phase of the vaccination programme covering over-50s have been offered a jab – could still lead to a huge surge in cases.
A plan to control future outbreaks
Mr Hopson said the government needed a plan that would mean future outbreaks could be effectively managed.
He highlighted that the biggest threat we now have is new variants.
Yesterday it was revealed that thirty-six cases of a new variant, dubbed B.1.525, are spread across England, with an additional two cases in Wales.
Like strains found in South Africa and Brazil, B.1.525 carries a mutation that can make Covid jabs less effective.
It has been categorised as a "variant under investigation" following a risk assessment.
Surge testing will not be carried out to find more cases, PHE said, because it is not seen as a "variant of concern".
A University of Edinburgh report said more than 100 cases have been identified globally in total.
Mr Hopson said: "We know that the biggest threat comes from new variants, a new one discovered yesterday.
"We have got to ensure that we have got a sufficiently strong set of protections to make sure we can identify and control those new variants as soon as we find them.
"Those are the four tests, if you look at where we are against these four tests, each one tells you that we are still some way away from being able to start relaxation restrictions."
Mr Hopson highlighted that new variants are making a big difference when it comes to hospitalisation rates.
He pointed to data from Israel which suggests that hospitalisation rates in people who have had the vaccine are "dropping rapidly".
He added: "But here's the kicker, the hospitalisation rates in those who haven't been vaccinated are actually rising and they are rising significantly even though Israel was in lockdown from January 8.
"The big driver of that and when you talk to people in the Israeli health system – is they have got the same strain, the strain discovered in Kent, the B117 strain.
"What is clear is that when you have these really contagious strains they can go very very quickly".
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