Life back to normal by 21 June at earliest, Boris Johnson announces

‘Cautious but irreversible’ lifting of lockdown dependent on good progress on vaccinations and infections

Andrew Woodcock
Political Editor
Monday 22 February 2021 15:47
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Almost all restrictions could be lifted by June 21, says Johnson

England will return to something close to normal life no earlier than 21 June, under the terms of a roadmap out of lockdown unveiled by Boris Johnson today.

Mr Johnson described the plan as “a one-way road to freedom”, but cautioned that measures could be paused at any time if the data makes clear that relaxations have increased the danger from Covid-19.

In an upbeat message, he said: “The end really is in sight and a wretched year will give way to a spring and a summer that will be very different and incomparably better than the picture we see around us today.”

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Mr Johnson’s plan will see schools reopen to all pupils from 8 March, while non-essential shops, outdoor dining and beer gardens could open no earlier than 12 April and indoor mixing, drinking and dining, hotel visits and limited crowds at sporting events return from 17 May at the earliest.

From 21 June, if all goes to plan, the final restrictions on nightclubs, summer festivals and mass-attendance events like concerts and football matches could be lifted.

The “stay at home” message will be switched to “stay local” from 29 March, when outdoor gatherings between up to two households will be permitted to allow family get-togethers over Easter.

Mr Johnson told the House of Commons that his plan offered a route “cautiously but irreversibly toward reclaiming our freedoms”.

And in a press conference at Downing Street, he said that the successful vaccination campaign, which saw more than 17.7 million people receive a first dose by Monday, had “decisively shifted the odds in our favour” and promised to “create a shield around the entire population”.

On Monday, 178 Covid deaths were reported in the UK, with the seven-day average down 26.9 per cent on the previous week. The number of positive tests stood at 10,641, a decline in the seven-day average of 11.1 per cent over the week.

Mr Johnson cautioned that each step towards normality is likely to see “more infections, more hospitalisations and, sadly, more deaths” as people are permitted to mix and restrictions to social activity are lifted.

But he rejected suggestions that he had become a “gloomster”, giving up the “buccaneering” mindset which characterised his politics pre-Covid.

While declaring that “the crocus of hope is poking through the frost and spring is on its way, both literally and metaphorically”, he resisted calls to accelerate the pace of relaxation, insisting: “I won’t be buccaneering with people’s lives.”

Initially, there will be no return to regionally tiered restrictions, with all parts of England moving out of lockdown at the same pace. A review will be conducted on how long to maintain guidance on face coverings, social distancing and working from home, alongside other studies on vaccine certification and international travel, and a pilot scheme on the safe return of major events.

But all relaxations will be subject to four tests: on the success of the vaccine rollout, evidence of vaccine efficacy, the pressure on the NHS and the emergence of new variants of the virus.

Chris Whitty, the chief medical officer for England, said that a five-week delay was required between each step, in order for scientists to assess what impact any relaxation has made on infections, illness and deaths.

Both Prof Whitty and chief scientific adviser Sir Patrick Vallance warned that Covid-19 would not be eradicated from the UK. Sir Patrick also predicted that face coverings may be needed in certain situations next winter.

Mr Johnson told MPs that he understood the feelings of those who wanted a faster removal of curbs.

“I sympathise very much with the exhaustion and the stress that people are experiencing and that businesses are experiencing after so long in lockdown,” he said. “But to them I say that today the end really is in sight.”

Mark Harper, the chair of the lockdown-sceptic Covid Recovery Group of Tory MPs, queried whether there was “any need for restrictions to continue” after April, when vaccines have reached all the most vulnerable groups, accounting for 99 per cent of deaths and 80 per cent of hospitalisations.

But Mr Johnson warned that some will remain vulnerable, either because they have turned down the jab or because of the fact that no vaccine is 100 per cent effective.

“There will be a large minority who will not have sufficient protection and the risk is that if you let the brakes off, then the disease could surge up in such a way as again to rip through those groups,” he said.

Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer said that, for the roadmap to work, Mr Johnson must listen to Sir Patrick and Prof Whitty, not lockdown-sceptic MPs like Mr Harper and Steve Baker.

And he added: “If the prime minister does, he will have our support and will secure a majority in the house. If he does not, we will waste all the sacrifices of the last 12 months.”

Alongside the reopening of schools, 8 March will see a relaxation of the rules on meeting outside, with individuals allowed to meet one person from another household for recreation – such as drinking a coffee, sitting down for a chat or a picnic – as well as for exercise. Pre-school and after-school clubs will also reopen.

From 29 March, outdoor sport and leisure facilities like tennis courts and golf courses can reopen and organised outdoor sports will be permitted for children and adults. Parent and child groups including up to 15 parents will be allowed outside.

And the “rule of six” will return, allowing up to six people from different households – or an unlimited number from two households – to meet outdoors.

In the second step, starting no earlier than 12 April, all retail will open, along with personal care premises (such as hairdressers and beauty salons), libraries and community centres, children’s activity groups and outdoor attractions such as zoos, theme parks and drive-in cinemas.

Hospitality venues like pubs, cafes and restaurants will reopen outdoors, with all customers required to be seated. There will be no curfew and no requirement for drinks to be accompanied by meals.

People will be able to stay away overnight in the UK, but only in self-contained accommodation, with no mixing of households.

Maximum attendance at weddings and wakes will be increased from six to 15.

Step 3, coming no earlier than 17 May, will see indoor entertainment attractions like cinemas reopen, along with all remaining accommodation venues. 

Spectators will return to sporting and entertainment events, with a limit of 1,000 people or 50 per cent of capacity, whichever is the smallest, for indoor venues. Outdoor seated events, such as Premier League football, will be allowed crowds of up to 10,000 or 25 per cent of stadium capacity, with appropriate distancing.

Organised indoor sport will be permitted for adults and outdoor performances will restart. 

Gatherings of up to 30 people will be allowed outside, while pubs, restaurants and other hospitality venues will open for indoor service, subject to the rule of six or two-household limits.

Under the PM’s plans, legal limits on social contacts will finally be lifted in step 4, beginning no earlier than 21 June, when nightclubs and larger events are also set to reopen.

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