Covid-19: Boris Johnson to unveil ‘cautious’ plan to lift England’s lockdown

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All schools in England are to reopen on 8 March as part of the prime minister’s “cautious” four-part plan to lift the coronavirus lockdown.

Boris Johnson will share his finalised road map with ministers later, before unveiling it to MPs and then leading a news conference at 19:00 GMT.

Up to six people or two households will be allowed to meet outdoors from 29 March, the vaccines minister said.

Rules will be lifted in stages and four conditions must be met at each stage.

The first stage will be split into two parts. Vaccines Minister Nadhim Zahawi told BBC Breakfast:

From 8 March – All schools will open with outdoor after-school sports and activities allowed. Recreation in a public space – such as a park – will be allowed between two people, meaning they would be allowed to sit down for a coffee, drink or picnic
From 29 March – Outdoor gatherings of either six people or two households will be allowed. It is understood this will include gatherings in private gardens. Outdoor sports facilities such as tennis or basketball courts will reopen and organised adult and children’s sport, such as grassroots football, will also return
Although schools are set to reopen to all pupils on 8 March, it is thought a few days’ flexibility may be built in to allow measures like testing to be put in place.

Also on 8 March, new rules will allow each care home resident in England to have one regular visitor, who they can hold hands with.

And from 29 March it is also understood that people will once again be able to travel out of their areas – although guidance will likely still recommend staying local, and overnight stays will not be permitted.

Data will be used to inform “every step” of lifting restrictions, Mr Johnson said.

“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,” he added.

The road map will outline four steps for easing restrictions. But before proceeding to each next step, the government will examine the data to assess the impact of previous changes.

The four conditions that must be met at each phase of lockdown easing are:

The coronavirus vaccine programme continues to go to plan
Evidence shows vaccines are sufficiently reducing the number of people dying with the virus or needing hospital treatment
Infection rates do not risk a surge in hospital admissions
New variants of the virus do not fundamentally change the risk of lifting restrictions
Downing Street said the four tests are currently being met so the first step of lockdown easing in England will proceed as planned on 8 March.

The first stage of easing restrictions will be across the whole of England, Downing Street added, due to the current uniform spread of the virus.

MPs will be given the chance to vote on the regulations enabling England’s road map in the coming weeks.

What’s perhaps most interesting about the four tests for the road map is that a rise in infection levels is not, in itself, a barrier to easing restrictions further.

Some members of the scientific community, as well as some teaching unions, believe any increase should not be tolerated.

But, instead, infection rates are only being seen as a problem by the government if they risk a surge in hospitalisations.

That’s important. The government’s advisers do not consider schools to be a significant driver of infections. But reopening to all pupils could certainly lead to some increase.

The rollout of the vaccination programme, however, weakens the direct link between infections and hospital admissions.

That’s not to say a surge in infections can or will be tolerated – the number of Covid patients in hospital is still only just below where it was in the first peak.

What’s more, high rates of infection at a time when vaccines are being given provides an ideal breeding ground for mutations.

But it’s clear the progress made has created some wriggle room.

Shadow health secretary Jonathan Ashworth said the government was “right to be cautious” coming out of lockdown.

He reiterated Labour’s support for the reopening of schools to all pupils in England, but called for a plan to make sure this can be done safely – with measures such as ventilation systems, testing and the prioritisation of teachers for coronavirus vaccines in the next phase of the rollout.

All four UK nations have been in lockdown for weeks, after hospitals were put under unprecedented pressure due to the rapid spread of a variant of the virus, which was first detected in Kent.

The devolved nations have the power to set their own restrictions.

In Scotland, children in early years education and the first three years of primary will return to school on Monday. First Minister Nicola Sturgeon is set to outline a route out of lockdown in the coming days, but has warned people not to book Easter holidays.

In Wales, First Minister Mark Drakeford said he hopes the “stay-at-home” requirement could end within three weeks, with some non-essential shops and hairdressers possibly reopening at the same time. Children aged three to seven are starting a phased return to Welsh schools on Monday, along with some college students.

Northern Ireland’s health minister has played down the prospect of restrictions being eased in time for Easter. A review of current measures will take place on 18 March.

Pre-school, nursery and pupils in primaries one to three will return to classrooms in Northern Ireland on 8 March. After two weeks, they will resume remote learning so older pupils in years 12 to 14 can go back to school.

Children of key workers and vulnerable pupils have been able to attend school in all parts of the UK throughout the lockdown.


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