The Prime Minister is to set out his road map for easing lockdown in England later this month, but some details have already started to emerge.
England has been in lockdown since January 5, and Boris Johnson said on Friday it was “early days” to be considering releasing restrictions.
But Conservative MPs have called for schools in England to return before the March 8 target date and for all measures to be dumped by May when all over-50s and the clinically vulnerable are expected to have been vaccinated.
The pace of the vaccine rollout, with almost 11 million people given their first dose jab, has brought hope that restrictions could begin to be scrapped, with some experts predicting that people could see friends and family as soon as March and newspapers reporting that shops could open in April, followed by pubs in May.
It is said the Government is considering a three-phase approach, but it will be a slow, gradual process as hospitalisations and deaths remain high despite a drop in cases, the Mirror is reporting.
There are also still serious concerns about new and more contagious variants that were first detected in Kent and South Africa and continue to circulate within the UK.
There are hopes the UK could return to some form of normality by the end of summer.
Face mask and social distancing requirements could continue through the rest of the year and into 2022, experts have warned.
How and when will England’s lockdown be eased? This is what we know so far.
Under the current rules, it is illegal to meet socially with family or friends unless they are part of a household or support bubble.
People cannot leave their homes for recreational or leisure purposes such as for a picnic or a social meeting.
They can exercise with those within their support bubble, if they are legally permitted to form one, or a childcare bubble, or with one person from another household when on their own.
Everyone must stay two metres apart from anyone not in their household or bubble.
Under the three-phase road map, some outdoor socialising is expected to be allowed in March, the Telegraph reported.
Ministers are said to be drawing up plans to stagger the return of children to classrooms in England from March 8, the target date set by the Prime Minister.
Younger primary school pupils are expected to be among those given priority.
The Government is considering plans to lengthen the school day to help children catch up from the disruption of the pandemic, it has been reported.
The Telegraph said that officials at the Department for Education (DfE) are considering multiple proposals to help children try and recover lost learning due to school closures.
This could include charities and volunteers running out-of-hours classes and extra-curricular activities, meaning teachers may not be required to stay late.
DfE officials are reportedly examining the cost-effectiveness and evidence of adding extra classes at the start and end of the day.
Robert Halfon, chairman of the Education Select Committee, told the paper: “They are definitely considering all these ideas. I think they are receptive and thinking about it seriously.”
The Department for Education did not comment on the proposals but a Government spokesperson said: “The Government will work with parents, teachers and schools to develop a long-term plan to make sure pupils have the chance to make up their lost education over the course of this parliament – and we have just appointed Sir Kevan Collins to the role of Education Recovery Commissioner, to specifically oversee this issue.”
The devolved administrations in Wales and Scotland have both announced that some primary schools year groups will return by February 22.
Education Secretary Gavin Williamson is drawing up plans for a staggered return to universities in March, the Guardian reported.
A review is expected later this month.
The report claims the Education Secretary is expected to announce on February 22 that final-year students in practical subjects will be able to return to face-to-face teaching.
Students studying other subjects would be expected to follow soon afterwards.
But vice-chancellors warned that many students were unlikely to return to campuses before summer.
Pubs, restaurants and cafes
Reports this weekend have claimed that the Government may allow pubs and restaurants to reopen after Easter in April as long as they agree not to sell alcohol.
The Sun reported that ministers are preparing to allow pubs to serve takeaway pints in April before fully reopening in May.
Restrictions such as the 10pm curfew and “substantial meal” requirement will be scrapped as part of a “simplification” of rules to ease confusion, the paper suggested.
Punters will be encouraged to drink outdoors.
A temporary “booze ban” in April – meaning dry pubs and restaurants – is one proposal being considered as part of the three-phase road map, the Telegraph said.
The alcohol ban is being considered to allay concerns from England’s chief medical officer Professor Chris Whitty and others, the report added.
They are said to be concerned about punters’ ability to social distance when drinking.
A senior Government source was dismissive about the idea, telling PA: “We are not going to open pubs that can’t sell booze. What would be the point of that?”
British Beer & Pub Association chief executive Emma McClarkin said: “Opening pubs without selling alcohol is not ‘reopening’ pubs at all.”
The alternative to an alcohol ban would be to delay the reopening of pubs and restaurants until later in the year until millions more are vaccinated against Covid-19, the Telegraph reported.
Cafes could be allowed to fully reopen earlier.
The Times reported that non-essential shops were being pencilled in for reopening in April by Downing Street.
Currently, only essential shops such as supermarkets and chemists are allowed to be open.
It is said the Government is working on vaccine passports which could allow British tourists to go on summer holidays abroad.
The certificates would help tourists to prove they are vaccinated against Covid-19.
Greece and Spain are among the countries expected to reopen their borders to UK holidaymakers in a few months.
It has been suggested that, with falling case numbers, lockdown easing could pave the way for outdoor team and individual sports to resume, as well as outdoor gatherings, within weeks of schools returning in March.
Children’s sports are expected to be a priority in the days after schools reopen, the Telegraph reported.
As for professional sport, fans could be allowed in stadiums in time for the European football championships in June.
End of tiers?
Previously, when not in lockdown, England was in a tiered system – first with three tiers, then four – that experts deemed to be ineffective at halting the spread of the virus.
Mr Johnson indicated just days ago that regional tiers may be scrapped.
He told reporters last Monday: “It may be that a national approach, going down the tiers in a national way, might be better this time round, given that the disease is behaving much more nationally.
“If you look at the way the new variant has taken off across the country, it’s a pretty national phenomenon.
“The charts I see, we’re all sort of moving pretty much in the same sort of way, I mean there are a few discrepancies, a few differences, so it may be that we will go for a national approach but there may be an advantage still in some regional differentiation as well. I’m keeping an open mind on that.”
Face masks and social distancing until 2022
Experts have warned that despite millions of people being vaccinated against Covid-19 some restrictions or rules should remain in place through the rest of the year or even into 2022.
They include the wearing of face masks, social distancing and limits on household mixing.
Sage, the Government’s team of scientific advisers, has urged No10 to make face coverings compulsory outdoors in crowded areas such as parks, playgrounds and markets.
A paper from Warwick University suggested that releasing restrictions suddenly could lead to “substantial additional deaths”.
Scientists said continuing measures including social distancing for a longer period may be needed.
Dr Sam Moore, an epidemiological modeller at Warwick University who led the study, warned that even if vaccines do significantly reduce infections the impact will not be seen “for some time to come”.
-- to www.walesonline.co.uk