Yesterday prime minister Boris Johnson set out the government's 'roadmap' for bringing England out of lockdown and easing restrictions around social interaction. He warned that each of the four stages of the timetable could be delayed if data suggested the pandemic was not easing as expected.
These decisions will be based on four tests - whether vaccine deployment is continuing as planned, whether vaccination is proving sufficiently effective, that infection rates do not risk overwhelming the NHS and the emergence of new variants.
The BMA said that while it supported the 'more cautious' approach adopted in the government's new roadmap, 'monitoring and assessing the impact at each stage' would be crucial.
'Despite the promise of an "irreversible" road out, the government must not be afraid to put on the brakes if the situation begins to escalate again and must be transparent about decisions taken based on clear metric trigger points,' said BMA chair Dr Chaand Nagpaul.
'With NHS staff completely exhausted after a gruelling and incredibly challenging year, we simply cannot afford to repeat past mistakes and risk a further surge in infection rates as the NHS will not cope.'
Dr Nagpaul said that a 'very measured' and gradual easing of restrictions was also essential if the NHS was going to be able to deal with the huge backlog of care that had built up as a result of the pandemic.
He added that the government needed to ensure there was clear communication stressing that the public continues to follow social distancing and public health guidance to limit the spread of infection - even if they have been vaccinated.
Under the government's plans all schools in England will reopen on 8 March and people will be allowed to meet one other person outside. Outdoor gatherings of two households or six people from different households will be permitted from 29 March and outdoor sports will restart.
From 12 April the government hopes to reopen non-essential retail, hairdressers, public buildings such as libraries, and outdoor venues including zoos and theme parks. Pubs and restaurants will be able to serve outdoor tables and gyms will also reopen providing people exercise only with those in their household.
If the government's tests are met, from 17 May indoor mixing of up to six people or two households will be allowed, and indoor venues including pubs and restaurants will reopen. All limits on social contact could potentially be dropped by 21 June, stage four of the plan.
The government's plan was published as early data suggested the vaccination programme was starting to have an impact on the pandemic. Yesterday Public Health England (PHE) said that data on infection in healthcare workers suggested that a single dose of Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine 'reduces the risk of catching infection by more than 70%' and that after two doses this rises to 85%.
It added that early data also suggested hospitalisation and death from COVID-19 will be reduced by over 75% in those who have received one dose of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine.
Meanwhile, preliminary data from Public Health Scotland, also published yesterday, found that four weeks after administration of a first dose, risk of hospitalisation was reduced by up to 85% by the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine and up to 94% by the Astra Zeneca vaccine.