Life will start returning to “some semblance of normality” in June, Boris Johnson has pledged, as he gave the green light for pubs, shops, hairdressers and gyms to reopen across England from next Monday – but he refused to be drawn on when foreign holidays could resume.
The prime minister said moving to the next stage of the government’s roadmap out of lockdown was “fully justified” by the success of the vaccine rollout and the drop in cases and hospitalisations, allowing a raft of venues to operate for the first time in three months.
But he suggested that Covid status certificates and mass weekly testing could be key to further restrictions being eased, raising the prospect of such interventions remaining in place for months to come.
Hopes that foreign holidays may be allowed from 17 May were dampened, as Johnson said he did “not wish to give hostages to fortune” and was nervous about “the virus being reimported” from abroad given the surge in cases across Europe.
Before the Downing Street press conference, scientists from the government’s Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage) said next week’s reopening of venues, with outdoor service only at pubs and restaurants, was “highly unlikely” to overwhelm the NHS. But they warned that further easing in May and beyond could unleash a third UK wave as deadly as the one seen during the winter, when more than half of the country’s total of Covid deaths occurred.
Work by the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, based on pessimistic but realistic assumptions about the effectiveness of the vaccines, forecast that a third wave could peak at the end of July or early August, with hospitalisations on the same scale as in January. Most other modelled scenarios showed a smaller potential third wave peak.
Speaking alongside Prof Chris Whitty and Sir Patrick Vallance, Johnson confirmed that hospitality venues will be able to operate outdoors-only from Monday 12 April, as hoped, with no curfew or requirements for customers to eat a “substantial meal” when drinking alcohol.
“I will be going to the pub myself and cautiously but irreversibly raising a pint of beer to my lips,” he declared.
Johnson said Covid status certificates, for people to prove they have had either a vaccine, a recent negative Covid polymerase chain reaction (PCR) or rapid test, or antibodies from a coronavirus infection within the last six months, remain under review for use within the UK, and would come into use no earlier than May or June.
He gave no concrete assurance that the scheme would be voted on in parliament, after dozens of Tory and Labour backbenchers vowed to oppose it, but said: “If there’s something to put to parliament, I’m sure we’ll be doing that.”
Johnson was more supportive of such documents being used for international travel, saying it was “something that all countries are looking at”, and added that he thought that was going to be “part of the way people deal” with the continued threat posed by Covid-19 and new variants.
After criticism from Labour that the government’s hotel quarantine policy for people arriving in the UK was not strict enough, Whitty said that cases of the South Africa variant, which is believed to be more transmissible, were stable, and confirmed that there was “no evidence that this is increasing”.
But the chief medical officer for England added that measures to prevent another wave of the pandemic in the UK would last for some time, warning: “We will have significant problems with Covid for the foreseeable future and I don’t think we should pretend otherwise.”
Alongside the press conference, No 10 published a report on four ongoing reviews looking at social distancing, restarting mass events, foreign holidays and the Covid status certificates, also known as Covid passports.
The report said banning the certificates would be an “unjustified intrusion on how businesses choose to make their premises safe” in most cases, and left open the possibility of them being used in pubs and bars as well as theatres, nightclubs and at mass events like football matches and festivals.
It stated that they would not be required in essential shops, public service buildings or on public transport, and revealed that the NHS was looking at how to offer both digital and non-digital versions.
In an update on restarting international travel, the document said the government “hopes people will be able to travel to and from the UK to take a summer holiday this year”.
Johnson’s roadmap out of lockdown, published on 22 February, had said that from 17 May, international travel would be permitted again “subject to review”. But in the latest review, while a traffic light system was confirmed for overseas travel, no endorsement of the date was given and no countries were named. “We are not yet in a position to confirm that non-essential international travel can resume from that point,” the document said.
The travel industry was left frustrated. Heathrow airport’s chief executive, John Holland-Kaye, said it was “disappointing that the opportunity has been missed” and “a clearer timeline” for the return to international travel was needed.
Johnson said that his February roadmap “continues to be one we are sticking to like glue” – but his unwillingness to move any faster, and the threat of Covid status certificates, provoked the ire of Tory backbencher Mark Harper, who chairs the Covid Recovery Group of MPs pushing for a quicker unlocking.
Harper said it was disappointing that the prime minister’s plan was “driven by dates, not data” when “the data suggests it could safely go faster rather than being tied rigidly”. He also warned that it wouldn’t be acceptable for the government to introduce Covid status certificates “by the back door” and said it was crucial for MPs to be allowed a vote on a system that would create “a two-tier Britain”.
More changes coming into force next Monday include allowing beauty and nail salons and spas to open – although not saunas and steam rooms. Overnight stays away from home in England will be permitted and self-contained accommodation can reopen, but only for use by members of the same household or support bubble.
Libraries and community centres will be allowed to open again, along with zoos, theme parks and drive-in cinemas.
The number of nominated people allowed to visit a care home will increase to two for each resident, and all children will be able to attend any indoor children’s activity, including sport, regardless of circumstance.
For those planning weddings, outdoor receptions will be able to take place with up to 15 attendees. People will still be encouraged to work from home where possible, and to minimise domestic travel.