UK PM Johnson says lockdown lifting will be cautious but irreversible

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Britain's Prime Minister Boris Johnson visits the QuantuMDx Biotechnology company, in Newcastle Upon Tyne

LONDON (Reuters) - British Prime Minister Boris Johnson said on Monday that his plan to lift the COVID-19 lockdown would be cautious but irreversible and would include the earliest possible dates for reopening the economy.

"We've got to be very prudent and what we want to see is progress that is cautious, but irreversible," Johnson told reporters. "If we possibly can, we'll be setting out dates."

"If because of the rate of infection, we have to push something off a little bit to the right - delay it for a little bit - we won't hesitate to do that."

Johnson, who will set out his plan to lift lockdown on Feb. 22, said the rates of infection were still very high and that too many people were still dying.

"The risk is that if you have a large, as it were, volume of circulation, if you've got loads of people, even young people getting the disease, then a couple of things happen: first of all, you have a higher risk of variants and mutations within the population, where the disease is circulating," he said.

"Secondly, there will also be a greater risk of the disease spreading out into the older groups again," Johnson said.

"Although the vaccines are effective and great, of course no vaccination programme is 100% effective, so when you have a large volume circulating, when you have got a lot of disease, inevitably, the vulnerable will suffer. So that's why we want to drive it right down, keep it right down."

(Reporting by Guy Faulconbridge and Kate Holton)