The Government is preparing to unveil its plans on easing lockdown later this month, as hopes mount over the prospect that restrictions could be eased by Spring.
Boris Johnson pledged to set out a “roadmap” on how England’s national lockdown will be lifted in the week of February 22, with officials expressing quiet confidence that the PM’s mid-February target for vaccinating the 15 million most vulnerable people will be met.
The Government revealed that it aims to vaccinate all the over 50s by early May, as it announced that local elections would go ahead on May 6.
Mr Johnson has pointed to Easter as a point when lockdown restrictions would be substantially lifted, saying it could be a “very, very different world” by then.
But ministers are being cautious not to raise the hopes of the lockdown-weary public by setting dates, but some scientists have started predicting the path to freedom from restrictions.
Health Secretary Matt Hancock previously set four tests for lifting lockdown measures.
- Another major, new variant is not causing difficulties
- The vaccination rollout is working
- Hospitalisation numbers are reducing
- The number of deaths are coming down
The Prime Minister is pinning his hopes on the continued success of the vaccine programme, but he warned on Wednesday that hospitalisations remain “forbiddingly high”.
However he is under pressure from Tory MPs to lift restrictions as soon as possible – a clamour that is likely to grow in the coming days.
Here’s what we know so far on how and when the restrictions could be lifted.
Plans are still being worked out, so we may not find out the full details until the Prime Minister sets out his roadmap later this month.
Schools will be the first thing to open
The Prime Minister has repeatedly said that getting pupils back in the classroom is the first priority.
March 8 has been pencilled in for the partial reopening of schools in England, with primary schools likely to be the first to return.
Pupils in exam years – year 10 and 12 – could also go back earlier, even though GCSEs and A-Levels have been scrapped this year.
Parents and schools have been promised two weeks notice on when face-to-face teaching can resume.
The idea behind the March 8 date is it would allow a three-week window from the mid-February deadline for the top priority groups to get the jabs.
This would give enough time for immunity to kick in for he most vulnerable.
But Mr Johnson is facing pressure from his own MPs and teachers to open schools sooner, with growing calls for teachers to be vaccinated in the second phase of the rollout.
Outdoor activities could follow
The next area where rules could be relaxed is outdoor exercise and socialising.
People are currently barred from any outdoor meet-ups, except for exercise within their household or bubble, or with one other person.
The PM is said to be considering letting team and individual sports go ahead in the open air, where transmission of the virus is lower.
Limited social gatherings outside could also be on the cards, the Times reported.
There could be a return to limits on numbers of people who can meet up, similar to the “rule of six” last year, which allowed you to meet up to five others.
Dr Mike Tildesley, an expert on the Goverment’s modelling group, said the idea of a return to outdoor activity was “slightly concerning” and urged caution.
Pressed on whether outdoor socialising next month seemed reasonable, he said “a little bit more mixing outdoors” might be reasonable but would need “very clear messaging from the Government”.
It is not clear when gyms and exercise classes would be able to resume.
Non-essential shops may also start to open
Only essential shops, such as supermarkets, pharmacies and garden centres, have been allowed to stay open during the national lockdown.
But it is likely that they will be among the next things to reopen when national restrictions begin to lift.
Under the tiers system, non-essential shops were allowed to keep their doors open, with Covid safety measures, except in the toughest Tier 4 areas.
It may depend whether the UK returns to a tiered system or the whole country comes out of lockdown at the same time.
Open air markets are likely to open before indoor shops.
A Whitehall source recently told the Telegraph: “We have to avoid the situation last time where the return of schools meant far greater household mixing across the board.
“So that means we’d be likely to wait at least another month for non-essential retail, and a month beyond that at least for pubs and restaurants.”
This could mean that shops start to open again in early April, possibly after Easter Sunday on April 4.
But pubs and restaurants are likely to stay closed for longer
Hospitality venues were among the last places to reopen after the first lockdown due to the risks of transmission of the virus.
SAGE experts have pointed to May as a possible time for pubs and restaurants to reopen – which could coincide with the bank holiday weekend.
If the Government meets its target to vaccinate the over 50s by early May, this could make it safer to open up hospitality.
Even then, pubs and restaurants faced a number of restrictions on how they could operate.
Allowing takeaway pints and food could be the first stage of easing restrictions, or allowing al fresco dining.
The rules on household mingling will also be a factor, depending on whether you can socialise with friends or people you don’t live with indoors.
Mr Johnson is believed to be keen to simplify the rules, including scrapping the widely ridiculed requirement for people to have a substantial meal with their pints, which applied in some tiers.
What about hairdressers and personal care?
Ministers are reportedly putting pressure on the PM to reopen the beauty industry alongside essential shops.
Hairdressers were shut during the earlier lockdowns and again in Tier 4 areas in December.
It is not clear whether Mr Johnson will listen to these pleas however, amid fears over the risks of spreading the virus through close contact care.
-- to www.mirror.co.uk