More lockdown measures are eased but schools wait goes on

Prime Minister Boris Johnson is set to announce children will soon be able to visit zoos in the latest easing of lockdown measures – although their wait to go back to school could last months.

Mr Johnson will face the nation at the Downing Street briefing on Wednesday and is expected to confirm zoos, safari parks and drive-in cinemas can reopen in England from June 15.

It comes a day after Business Secretary Alok Sharma confirmed shops would also be able to reopen on the same day as the Government seeks to kick-start the economy.

But Education Secretary Gavin Williamson was forced to admit defeat over plans for all primary pupils in England to attend classes before the summer break.

Meanwhile health bosses have raised concerns that around 10 million people will be on the waiting list for NHS treatment by the end of the year – more than double the current figure – due to a combination of social distancing measures, a backlog of treatments and staffing shortages.

The PM, who will face a grilling from Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer on Wednesday at Prime Minister’s Questions, will reopen outdoor attractions where people remain in their cars, such as safari parks and drive-in cinemas, because the risk of spreading the disease is lower outside.

A Downing Street official said: “People are continuing to make huge sacrifices to reduce the spread of coronavirus and avoid a second spike, but we know it is tough and where we can safely open up more attractions, and it is supported by the science, we will do so.”

Coronavirus – Wed Apr 29, 2020
Giraffes Maggie and Molly stand under a sign showing support for the NHS at ZSL London Zoo, which is set to be able to reopen from June 15 (Dominic Lipinski/PA).

Questions remain, however, over returning pupils to school with a number of councils, including in the north west of England, opposing plans to widely reopen after new data suggested coronavirus could still be spreading in their local areas.

Children in nursery, Reception, Year 1 and Year 6 in England began returning to primary school last week after the Government eased lockdown measures.

But some schools said they did not have enough space on site to admit all pupils in the eligible year groups, while adhering to Government guidance to limit class sizes to 15 and encourage fewer interactions.

Mr Williamson said the Government would like to see schools who “have the capacity” bring back more pupils where possible before the summer break but conceded the Government was “working to bring all children back to school in September”.

Shops will only be able to reopen if they have completed a Covid-19 risk assessment and can implement social distancing measures.

Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy Secretary Alok Sharma (Pippa Fowles/10 Downing Street/Crown Copyrigh)

But other businesses, including pubs, restaurants and hairdressers, will remain shut until July 4 at the earliest, Mr Sharma said.

It comes as hospitality chiefs have warned the rule requiring people to stay two metres apart could jeopardise firms’ ability to reopen, with some asking for the distance to be halved.

Mr Sharma said the rule was being kept under review and “when it is safe to do so, we will see whether you can move to a shorter distance”.

In other developments:

– ONS data released on Tuesday showed there had been more than 63,500 excess deaths in the UK since the outbreak began, and analysis by the PA news agency showed the number of fatalities involving Covid-19 in the UK is now just less than 52,000.

– Figures also show less than a fifth of deaths registered in the week ending May 29 in England and Wales involved coronavirus – the lowest proportion since the week lockdown was imposed.

– Professor Clifford Stott, a member of the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies’ (Sage) sub-committee on behaviour, said the Government was being “far too slow” to communicate major changes in coronavirus policy to the people charged with implementing them.

– People in Wales have been advised to wear face coverings when using public transport but it will not be mandatory.

– Nicola Sturgeon announced an expert group is to be established to study the effects of Covid-19 on minority ethnic communities in Scotland.

Meanwhile, projections by the NHS Confederation show that the combined effects of keeping up social distancing, the backlog of treatments and challenges around staffing mean the list is expected to rise from around 4.2 million currently to around 10 million by Christmas.

The confederation, which represents health and care leaders, said the figures came from its most “realistic” scenario, which assumes the health service makes a steady return to full capacity within the next 12 months.

The pessimistic scenario assumes a second wave of Covid-19 and a lack of treatments or a vaccine, pushing the waiting list to around 11 million by the end of the year.

A gardener puts the finishing touches to a floral display thanking the NHS and key workers outside Birmingham City Council House in Birmingham.

The most optimistic scenario assumes a faster return to normal, where the waiting list will be around eight million by the end of the year.

The confederation published a new report warning the health service in England “faces an uphill battle” as it continues to manage thousands of sick and recovering Covid-19 patients while also trying to restart services such as those for cancer, stroke and heart disease.

The health leaders called on the Government to prepare the public not to expect the same level of service for many months, adding that some staff were so exhausted and traumatised from caring for coronavirus patients that they would need support.

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