Boris Johnson promised spring and summer would be “incomparably better” than life in lockdown as he set out a four-stage plan for England that could pave the way for nightclubs to reopen, sports fans to fill stadiums once again and domestic tourism to return.
But announcing a cautious phased easing of curbs, the prime minister ruled out reopening shops, pubs, gyms and holiday lets until at least 12 April, after Easter. By 21 June, the government hopes to be able to lift the restrictions on socialising that have been in place for much of the past year, and reopen venues that have remained closed since last March.
In a signal of how different the new normal will be from pre-pandemic life, “Covid status certificates” are being considered to help businesses reopen, and families and workers will be encouraged to take rapid Covid tests on a regular basis. Prof Chris Whitty, England’s chief medical officer, warned the country to expect that coronavirus “will be a problem for the next few winters”.
With more than a third of UK adults having had their first vaccine dose, Johnson told MPs on Monday that “we’re setting out on what I hope and believe is a one-way journey to freedom”. New data from England and Scotland showed that a single jab gives high protection against severe Covid and protects against even mild forms of the disease that produce no symptoms in younger people.
The prime minister added: “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.”
His keenly awaited roadmap, which begins with all pupils returning to schools in England on 8 March, is slower than many Tory colleagues had hoped, with the “stay at home” order remaining in place until 29 March at the earliest, and Easter breaks banned. All changes are contingent on four tests being met, Johnson said.
Aside from schools reopening – with secondary school pupils expected to wear masks – the only change on 8 March will be that two people from different households are allowed to meet outside socially. From 29 March, the “stay at home” order will lift so that people can meet family members in a park or garden, and outdoor sports facilities can reopen.
In step two, from 12 April, hairdressers and non-essential shops can reopen, as well as self-catering accommodation, libraries and outdoor hospitality such as pub gardens.
From 17 May, in step three, most rules on outdoor social contact will be lifted, with gatherings limited to 30 people. Pubs and restaurants will be able to serve customers indoors. Sports venues can admit up to 10,000 fans or a quarter of capacity, whichever is lower, and music acts can perform to an audience of up to 1,000 people, or half a venue’s capacity, and indoor museums will reopen.
In step four, from 21 June, all limits on socialising should be lifted and the final entertainment sectors should be able to reopen.
Johnson stressed that the dates in his 60-page roadmap were the earliest at which easements would take place.
Experts on the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage), whose analysis was published alongside the plan, stressed the need for caution. “All scenarios show an epidemic resurgence which results in a substantial number of hospital admissions and deaths, though there are differences in the scale and timing,” they said. “Decisions about changes to restrictions are best made based on epidemiological data rather than based on predetermined dates.”
Johnson bluntly told MPs: “We cannot escape the fact that lifting lockdown will result in more cases, more hospitalisations and, sadly, more deaths. And this will happen whenever lockdown is lifted, whether that is now or in six or nine months.”
But he insisted: “We cannot persist indefinitely with restrictions that debilitate our economy, our physical and mental wellbeing, and the life chances of our children.”
The five-week gap between the phases of the plan is intended to allow four weeks for data to emerge about the impact of the changes and a week’s notice for the next stage of easing to be introduced.
Speaking at a Downing Street press conference, Whitty said there were still “significant numbers of people with infections every day”. He said the roadmap was “not the end”, but was a point where risk-based opening up could begin.
Covid could become similar to seasonal flu, he said, which causes an average of around 9,000 deaths a year. “There are a lot of other respiratory infections and I’m afraid for the foreseeable future, coronavirus is going to be added to that list of things that those who are vulnerable, even despite vaccination, can be at risk [of].”
There was no firm news in the roadmap for those hoping for a summer break abroad. The government said the ban on international travel would continue until at least 17 May. Meanwhile, ministers will carry out a review of how travel inbound and outbound can safely resume.
Keir Starmer welcomed the prime minister’s plan, but called for more financial help for people self-isolating. “As the chair of Test and Trace said, people are ‘scared’ to take a test because they can’t afford to isolate. This not only harms our health response, it costs the economy too. It simply has to be fixed,” the Labour leader said.
Johnson promised not to “pull the rug” from under businesses and households struggling with the costs of the pandemic – but left the details to be announced by the chancellor, Rishi Sunak, in the budget next week.
The prime minister faced more muted criticism from his backbenchers, both publicly and privately, than during some earlier phases of the crises. Many welcomed the roadmap and the emphasis on vaccines as a tool for unlocking the economy, but appeared resigned to a long route out of lockdown.
“I want everything open as soon as possible, but I know it won’t be for a while,” one senior Tory said. Another admitted that colleagues were “expecting more”, while a third said “there are some things I’d have done quicker” – but Johnson escaped angry confrontations from his colleagues in the Commons.
However, Steve Baker of the Covid recovery group of backbenchers questioned the modelling on which the plan was based. “Today’s pace of change will be a hammer blow to aviation, pubs, restaurants, hotels, gyms and pools, the arts and entertainment. Once again, it seems to be modelling, not data, driving decisions,” he said.
Johnson’s predecessor, Theresa May, challenged him on aviation, saying a review on restarting foreign travel due to report on 12 April won’t give travellers enough time to plan or the industry to prepare for bookings.
Another review will be carried out into mask-wearing, social distancing and working from home, all of which are expected to continue for the time being. That review is expected to be completed before step four is implemented in June.
Unlike last autumn, when tiered restrictions were imposed regionally, the changes will be England-wide – though small-scale local lockdowns could be imposed if worrying evidence of new variants emerges.