An in-depth look into would England could look like in the coming weeks and months
Boris Johnson will make a national, televised address tomorrow at 7 pm to outline the exit lockdown plan for England.
Matt Hancock appeared on Sky News this morning, where he said the lifting of restrictions will be done ‘cautiously’.
It is believed that the government is spending this weekend finalizing plans before the big announcement.
The PM will also unveil his plans in the House of Commons tomorrow at 3:30 pm.
Mr. Johnson is thought to be bringing England out of lockdown in stages, probably separated by a few weeks, The Mirror reports.
We know schools and outdoor recreation will be first, followed by non-essential shops, then finally pubs, restaurants, and cafes.
But there are still plenty of unanswered questions.
Some lessons will be taken from the exit from the first lockdown last summer.
However this time around we have a new weapon in our arsenal – the vaccine – and ministers are praying that data will show it is having an impact on the spread of the virus and the severity of cases.
So what DO we know will happen – and what is still unclear? We try to separate fact from rumour.
What we DO know
When lockdown will start to ease
The roadmap for easing England’s lockdown will be confirmed by Mr. Johnson on Monday, February 22.
The Prime Minister held talks with senior ministers on Sunday and he is due to update the Cabinet before revealing his plans tomorrow.
It will almost certainly spell out a plan for schools to reopen from Monday, March 8.
Things like non-essential shops and pubs will also likely have dates attached in the February 22 roadmap.
But those dates will be flexible and could change further down the road.
Last week, Mr. Johnson said: “The dates we’ll be setting out will be the dates by which we hope we can do something at the earliest.
“It’s the target date by which we hope to do something at the earliest.
“If because of the rate of infection we have to push something off a little to the right, delay it for a bit, we won’t hesitate to do that.”
What order things will reopen
N10 sources have confirmed the rough order in which lockdown will be eased.
Schools will begin reopening first, followed in quick succession by outdoor “recreation” (see below).
Non-essential shops will then follow after that, and hospitality – pubs and restaurants – will come afterward.
Entertainment venues such as theatres, cinemas, and nightclubs, as well as sporting facilities are likely to be among the last things to open.
Schools and outdoor recreation will be first
The Prime Minister has committed to reopening England’s schools from Monday 8 March if at all possible.
Schools are currently only open to vulnerable and key workers’ children.
But we don’t yet know if England’s schools will open to all year groups at once, or if primary and exam years will go back first like they did when lockdown eased last June.
Mr. Johnson is thought to be leaning towards sending all children back to the classroom on March 8, despite warnings from education unions that this could risk spikes in infection rates.
Internal plans, obtained by Sky News, also suggested students in higher education and further education could go back in mid April, although this may depend on the success of the school plans.
Outdoor recreation is a safe bet as the next relaxation – but this doesn’t mean a 22-man football match.
During the November lockdown, two people from two households could meet in a public open space (like a park, beach, street, or woodland) for exercise, or recreation like a coffee or picnic. In the current lockdown that was cut down to “exercise” only.
Sources confirm the “recreation” ban is likely to be reversed at a very early stage, possibly as early as March 8.
Reports also suggest children will be exempt from the two-person limit. That would mean a dad could bring his daughter to meet her grandma in the park.
Outdoor socially-distanced sports like golf and tennis, as well as outdoor attractions like zoos and craft markets, would likely follow soon after this but we don’t have firm dates.
Relaxation of the rules on open-air meet-ups is also expected to follow.
Outdoor reunions between two households are being considered in time for Easter.
Care home visits ban will be relaxed
People will be allowed to hold hands with their loved ones in care homes on March 8 under the lockdown plans.
Care home residents will be allowed one indoor visitor, who will be required to take a quick lateral flow test before entry and to wear personal protective equipment (PPE).
While holding hands will be allowed, residents will be asked not to hug or kiss their relatives.
Indoor visits have been banned during the latest lockdown, with families only allowed to see loved ones through windows or protective screens to prevent the virus ripping through care homes again.
The full guidance is due to be published in the next fortnight.
Pubs will almost certainly be last
The hospitality industry was among the last things to reopen after the first lockdown, on July 4 last year.
Sources confirm pubs, restaurants, and bars are set to follow a similar pattern this time around too.
Mr. Johnson said last week: “You have to remember from last year that we opened up hospitality fully as one of the last things that we did because there is obviously an extra risk of transmission from hospitality.”
This may dash hopes of Tory MPs who had demanded pub beer gardens reopened by Easter, April 2.
However, a Whitehall blueprint suggested the end of April was being considered for allowing hospitality venues to reopen.
The internal plans say hotels, leisure facilities, and some sporting venues could open their doors around this time.
Entertainment venues and sporting facilities would follow in early May.
Non-essential shops could come a bit earlier, in mid-April.
It’ll be in clear, separated stages
Mr. Johnson told reporters: “I certainly think that we need to go in stages.”
That suggests there will be clear time gaps between each of the schools, shops and pubs reopening.
What we don’t know is exactly how long those gaps will be, with reports ranging from anywhere between two weeks and four weeks.
On Sunday, Health Secretary Matt Hancock said the measures would be lifted in stages as it takes a few weeks for the impact of lifting measures to be seen.
He told Times Radio: “Hence there will be weeks between the steps so that we can watch carefully.”
Three weeks or so is probably a good bet because that’s roughly how long experts say it takes to see the impact of any lockdown changes on Covid rates.
It’ll probably be nationwide, not in tiers
When we went into England’s third national lockdown, Mr. Johnson planned to return to the regional tier system when it ended.
That would have meant some areas had pubs closed while others had them open, for instance.
But Mr. Johnson has since admitted a national approach “might be better this time round”. All signs from Nº10 sources are that venues will open at the same pace across England.
It’ll b e slow and cautious
Tory lockdown “sceptics” have been pushing for weddings from March 8, beer gardens from April 2, and all restrictions to end by April 30.
But Mr. Johnson has all but said this is a non-starter.
Instead, the Prime Minister has said that, while he can’t rule out a fourth lockdown, he wants this lockdown to have been the last. That means going more slowly to avoid a U-turn.
Urging “irreversible” progress, he said: “We want to be going one way from now on.”
There are 6 tests for ending lockdown
We don’t know exactly what science says yet, but we do know what the Prime Minister is looking for.
Roughly speaking, No10 is looking at six tests for the easing lockdown:
- Vaccine rollout is bringing cases down
- Hospitalizations are falling
- Deaths are falling
- R number is low (presumably below one)
- New variants aren’t posing a fresh risk
- Case rates are ‘really low’
This last one is controversial because case numbers were not among the original tests to ease lockdown.
Speaking to MPs on January 7, Mr. Hancock said there were “four conditions” for easing lockdown – he did not include the R number or case numbers.
Tory backbenchers say including the case rate is “moving the goalposts” because it could keep lockdown rules even when the most vulnerable are vaccinated. But Boris Johnson now says it’s vital to minimize the risk of new variants emerging in the UK.
The timeline for the vaccine
Ministers have ramped up their ambitions for the jabs rollout, pledging to give all over-50s and at-risk groups a first vaccine dose by April 15.
That would then be followed by a first dose for all UK adults by July 31, under Mr. Johnson’s new plans.
The previous target for all over-50s was April 30, and the rest of the population had been expected to get their first dose by September.
If the vaccine rollout helps bring cases and deaths down, as data suggests, it means unlocking quicker.
Professor Mark Woolhouse, who sits on the Government’s virus modelling panel, expressed optimism that the UK could go for “earlier unlocking” due to the success of the vaccine rollout.
The Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation (JCVI), which advises on the order people receive their jabs, is expected to the public its new priority list for the under-50s this week.
Some measures like hand-washing, masks in shops, and moderate social distancing can be kept in place with little effect on the economy. Scientists are pushing for this to be the case.
Prof Tim Spector, who leads the Covid symptom study, said this week he can see a “scenario” where people carry on using masks and regularly washing hands in years to come.
He added: “I can see us carrying on using masks in certain situations. And why not have wash your hands when you go to the supermarket or you’re touching food – these are things that other countries routinely do.
“If you look at Japan they do wear masks every winter, it may not be compulsory maybe, but I think this is the sort of scenario we’re going to see.”
He added: “We’re not going to suddenly wake up one day and say we’re all cured like in the Hollywood movies and wave flags.”
What we DON’T know
When pubs will reopen
Newspapers have carried pretty much every possible date for pubs to reopen in recent days.
It is thought that there could be a partial reopening in April, with pubs open for al fresco dining only. A fuller return to operations could come in May.
Unpopular restrictions including the 10 pm curfew and the requirement for customers to have a “substantial meal” with their drinks look likely to be scrapped.
The reopening of pubs will hinge on whether the infection rates stay low when children go back to school.
A Nº10 source recently suggested it could be anywhere from April to August.
When hairdressers or gyms can reopen
We know the order schools, non-essential shops and hospitality will reopen.
But there’s more to the UK than that – what about the beauty industry, and leisure like gyms and pools?
Last summer, hairdressers opened at the same time as pubs, but there was a delay to face-to-face treatments and it took longer for massage, nail, and tattoo parlours to reopen.
Gyms and indoor pools opened around three weeks after pubs and hairdressers last time.
And what about cinemas, museums, galleries, and libraries? Last time they opened on July 4.
There has been precious little information leaked so far about where these venues will slot into the order.
When football stadiums, nightclubs, gigs, and theatre can reopen
There is precious little information about when we’ll get mass events – branded the “toughest nut to crack” by Mr. Johnson.
His vision for reopening combines mass vaccination with rapid Covid tests you could take before a show.
But that suggests it could only happen once everyone has been offered a vaccine in late summer.
Meanwhile, there are questions about how safe it is to use lateral flow tests – which may miss two-fifths of positive cases – to claim someone doesn’t have Covid-19.
And there are questions about who’ll pay for a rapid test – will it add £3 or more to a cinema ticket?
The UK Cinema Association warned no major cinema firms see rapid tests as a “viable way forward”.
Chief executive Phil Clapp insisted cinemas were already ‘Covid-secure’, telling the Mirror: “Our understanding is that current ‘rapid’ testing take around 30 minutes to return a result and cost £3-4 each time.
“Asking an audience of 250 each to take the test and wait 30 minutes before seeing a two-hour film seems impractical, as is asking customers to pay what equates in many instances to a 50% uplift on their cinema ticket.”
When you can go on holiday
Ministers and scientists have warned Brits it’s too soon to book holidays, especially “elaborate” ones.
On international travel, we’re likely to still have a quarantine system for “red list” nations into the Autumn.
That would mean at the very least you’d have to spend 10 days at home after going abroad, which could escalate to 10 days in a hotel at £1,750 if you’re coming from a high-risk nation.
Scotland’s First Minister Nicola Sturgeon has warned foreign holidays are “highly unlikely” to be allowed this summer.
Domestic holidays are different. It’s likely some UK breaks will be allowed but we don’t know what.
Several reports say England’s self-catering holiday lets and big hotels could open sooner than more risky accommodation like hostels – possibly as soon as Easter. But that’s to be confirmed. Last time, hotels were only allowed to reopen at the same time as pubs.
What’s more, there are splits between the home nations of the UK.
Wales’ First Minister Mark Drakeford has said if the current path continues, Wales can “slowly and cautiously” lift restrictions on the tourism industry “towards the spring and Easter”.
Mr. Drakeford said he was in talks with tourism chiefs about whether people could take breaks in April, as long as they are in self-contained accommodation, such as caravans and self-catered cottages.
But Scotland’s First Minister Nicola Sturgeon said she is “very likely” to advise Scots against taking breaks within the country for Easter, and even in summer, they’re only a maybe.
In fact, pretty much any dates at all
Nº10 has repeatedly said any dates beyond March 8 are “speculation” until the February 22 roadmap.
And even when they are unveiled on February 22, they could change again in the future.
SAGE expert Dame Angela McLean told MPs: “The important issue is to really watch very closely what is happening, so that if infections start to increase and that we do everything we can to decide whether it is a good moment to take another step in unlocking.
“Let’s use data, not dates.”
Exactly how low cases need to come down
As explained above, we know Mr. Johnson has a new target to get case rates as low as possible.
But how low?
Nº10 has dismissed claims that new cases – currently around 13,000 a day – must dip below 1,000 a day before lockdown can seriously ease.
But when lockdown lifted last July they were in the low hundreds, so it’s not totally unreasonable.
Separate figures show around 695,400 people in England had coronavirus at any time in the week ending February 6 – including people who didn’t get a test. NHS Providers chief executive Chris Hopson said “that number needs to come down to around 50,000”.
How long you’ll have to work from home
Mr. Johnson had his fingers burnt last summer after urging Brits to return to offices over August.
The policy was a flop, with his own civil servants largely staying at home, and it later transpired he had gone against SAGE guidance.
All that – and the fact some jobs can now be done pretty well from home – means getting back to offices in person is unlikely to be the top priority.
At some point of course the government will push for city centres to breathe back to life.
According to the Times, more than 400,000 rapid lateral flow tests could be sent by post to homes and workplaces every day to return to “a new normal”. The campaign is provisionally called “are you ready? Get testing. Go”, the newspaper claims.
When you can hug your gran – or have a house party
It’s entirely feasible that most of the economy will be open but we’ll still be told to stay 1m or 2m apart.
That would mean that, technically, you still wouldn’t be allowed to hug and touch people who are outside of your household or bubble. Reports are suggesting the Rule of Six could be here to stay too.
There are big questions about how the government will define its advice to families on hugging and kissing, or dare we say it, to young single people – who haven’t been allowed to have sex or house parties for a year.
At some point, there will be a reckoning where most Brits have had the vaccine and will demand rules that fit how they want to live their lives – even though we know Covid is here to stay regardless, and there has to be something to keep it under control.