Schools and outside meetings set to return from March under Boris Johnson’s lockdown easing plan

But government rejects ‘arbitary’ plan from backbenchers to lift regulations wholesale

Jon Stone
Policy Correspondent
Sunday 14 February 2021 19:16 GMT

Lockdown can’t be lifted ‘arbitrarily’ warns Raab

Children are set to go back to school and adults given new freedoms to meet outside from early March under government plans to loosen lockdown.

Boris Johnson is expected outline the changes in an address to the nation later this month, having said on Saturday that he was cautiously "optimistic" about falling cases.

But any loosening of the rules is expected to be cautious, with ministers on Sunday rejecting an “arbitary” call from Tory backbenchers to lift all regulations.

Under current government thinking, from 8 March people will be able to meet one friend from outside their household for a coffee on a park bench or picnic outside.

But mixing inside and larger gatherings will remain against the rules.

At around the same time, children are expected to be sent back to school – with debate continuing in Whitehall about whether primary and secondary schools will go back at the same time.

The prime minister said on Saturday he "very much hoped" also to reopen schools at the same time but he also said the government wanted to monitor any changes to the R rate before unlocking too much.

The planned relaxation is likely to provide comfort to some of Mr Johnson's Tory backbenchers, who have been lobbying for restrictions to be lifted on the back of the vaccination programme.

But scientific advisors have been urging caution and say lifting all restrictions now would invite another wave of infections.

In letter to the prime minister, the leaders of the Covid Recovery Group (CRG) had said the "tremendous pace" of the vaccine rollout meant restrictions in England should begin easing.

The letter was organised by outspoken lockdown critics Mark Harper and Steve Baker, and claimed the backing of 63 Conservative MPs.

They said schools "must" return from 8 March and called for pubs and restaurants to reopen by Easter.

But speaking on Sunday morning Dominic Raab, the foreign secretary, rejected calls for an "arbitrary commitment" to lift all coronavirus restrictions by the end of April.

"We do need to be very careful how we proceed. We have made good progress. We don't want to see that unravel because we go too far too quick," Mr Raab said.

"We are not making what feels to me like a slightly arbitrary commitment without reviewing the impact that measures have had on the transmission and the hospital admissions of the virus.

"I don't think you can set though an arbitrary target and not be evidence-led, which is why the review point on 22 February is so important."

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