Johnson setting out cautious approach to easing England’s lockdown

David Hughes, PA Political Editor

Boris Johnson is to set out a “steady as she goes” plan for easing England’s lockdown, with schools and outdoor activities the first in line for a return.

The Prime Minister will tell MPs that all pupils in all years in England can go back to the classroom from March 8, with outdoor after-school sports and activities allowed to restart as well.

Socialising in parks and public spaces with one other person will also be permitted in a fortnight, when the rules are relaxed, to allow people to sit down for a drink or picnic.

A further easing of restrictions will take place on March 29 when the school Easter holidays begin – with larger groups allowed to gather in parks and gardens.

The moves form the first step in a four-part plan, which will not be completed until the summer – with around five weeks between stages expected to assess the impact on the spread of the virus and prepare businesses for the next move.

By the Easter holidays the “rule of six” will return, along with new measures allowing two households totalling more than six people to meet – giving greater flexibility for families and friends.

Outdoor sports facilities such as tennis and basketball courts are also set to reopen, and organised adult and children’s sport, including grassroots football, can return from March 29.

Vaccines Minister Nadhim Zahawi said people would also be able to travel to see friends and family from another household from March 29, “as long as it’s outdoors, and it is two families, or the rule of six”.

Easing the lockdown in England
(PA Graphics)

Details of the next three stages will be set out in the road map, but Mr Zahawi indicated that, as with previous lockdowns, indoor activities will be among the last to resume.

He said: “At the moment, the focus is very much on the steady as she goes.

“Outdoor versus indoor, priority being children in schools, second priority is obviously allowing two people on March 8 to meet outside for a coffee to address some of the issues around loneliness, and of course mental health as well.

“And then the 29th is two families, or rule of six, coming together, and outdoor sporting activities as well.”

The plan for England comes as schools in Wales and Scotland began their phased return.

England’s pupils will return en masse on March 8, despite warnings from unions that it could be “reckless” not to stagger the resumption of face-to-face schooling.

Progress on the next steps out of lockdown will depend on meeting four tests: the success of the vaccine rollout, evidence of vaccine efficacy, an assessment of new variants, and keeping infection rates below a level that could put unsustainable pressure on the NHS.

However, Number 10 insisted that the “stay at home” message would remain in place despite the relaxation of some restrictions.

The changes will apply across England, rather than on a regional basis.

Covid-19 hospital admissions in England
(PA Graphics)

A five-week gap from March 8 would suggest the next phase of the programme could begin as early as April 12, if the tests are met.

Speculation has centred on non-essential retail opening in that phase, with the possibility of pubs and restaurants being able to serve outdoors.

But activities such as cinemas and theatres are likely to face a longer wait, and, as with previous lockdowns, mixing in other people’s houses is likely to be later still.

Mr Johnson has stressed the need to relax restrictions in a “cautious” manner, saying that the Government would make decisions based on the latest data at every step.

Ahead of his Commons address, Mr Johnson said: “Our priority has always been getting children back into school, which we know is crucial for their education as well as their mental and physical wellbeing, and we will also be prioritising ways for people to reunite with loved ones safely.

Covid-19 patients in hospital in England
(PA Graphics)

“Our decisions will be made on the latest data at every step, and we will be cautious about this approach so that we do not undo the progress we have achieved so far and the sacrifices each and every one of you has made to keep yourself and others safe.”

But now that one in three adults in the UK have received their first dose of a coronavirus vaccine, Mr Johnson will face pressure from some Tory MPs to ease measures more quickly.

Conservative Mark Harper, leader of the Covid Recovery Group of lockdown-sceptic backbenchers, said on Sunday that all legal restrictions put in place in response to the pandemic should be lifted by the end of April.

However, scientists have urged caution, with leading epidemiologist Professor John Edmunds warning that any easing of the lockdown must be gradual to prevent a surge in hospital admissions and deaths.

Mr Johnson was chairing a virtual meeting of his Cabinet on Monday morning to discuss the plan, and will then announce the details to Parliament in the afternoon.

He is expected to host a Downing Street press conference at 7pm on Monday alongside key advisers.

Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer told LBC Radio: “Everybody – and I think the Prime Minister is in this place now – wants this to be the last lockdown. So come out cautiously, carefully – that’s the language he is using, so I’m looking for that this afternoon.”

Meanwhile, researchers from the University of Edinburgh, the University of Strathclyde and Public Health Scotland found the Covid-19 vaccination programme has been linked to a substantial reduction in hospital admissions.

By the fourth week after receiving the initial dose, the Pfizer and Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccines were shown to reduce the risk of hospital admission from Covid-19 by up to 85% and 94%, respectively, they found.

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