British Prime Minister Boris Johnson will chart England’s path out of the COVID-19 lockdown as the government readies to ease restrictions and reopen a battered economy, aided by one of the world’s fastest vaccine rollouts.
The United Kingdom has been hit hard by the pandemic, recording more than 120,000 deaths – the world’s fifth-highest official toll – and suffering its biggest fiscal crash in more than 300 years.
But a fast start to the vaccine roll-out plus a tough near-two-month national lockdown means Johnson can on Monday set out a so-called “roadmap” out of strict lockdown measures.
The first moves, on March 8, will see children return to English schools and social mixing outdoors permitted.
Schools have been open only to vulnerable pupils and to key workers’ children since January 5, with all others studying at home.
Overall daily coronavirus cases hovered around 11,000 a day last week, compared with a high of over 80,000 in late December after the so-called Kent variant, which scientists say is more transmissible and deadly than the first-wave original strain, raced through the UK.
“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,” Johnson is expected to say in an address to Parliament, scheduled to take place at 15:30GMT.
‘Steady as she goes’
MPs are expected to approve Johnson’s plan.
Nadhim Zahawi, the minister in charge of the vaccine roll-out, said the plan for easing restrictions was “steady as she goes”.
Zahawi told LBC Radio that two people from separate households would be allowed to meet outdoors from March 8, while from March 29, outdoor socialising would be allowed for groups up to a maximum of six people, or two households together.
Outdoor sports will also be allowed to resume from March 29, he added.
Restaurants, pubs, gyms and hairdressers are expected to remain closed until at least April.
Authorities in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, which have responsibility for their own public health decisions, are also expected to ease restrictions in the coming months.
UK vaccine drive continues
Under pressure on one side from some politicians in his ruling Conservative Party keen to restart the economy, and on the other from scientific advisers who fear a resurgence of the virus if he unlocks too quickly, Johnson faces tough choices.
His government has previously been accused of mishandling its response to the pandemic by reopening the country too quickly after the first lockdown last spring, and of rejecting scientific advice before a short “circuit-breaker” lockdown in the autumn.
He is expected to set out four criteria to be considered before each new step is taken, including the speed and success of the inoculation programme, the state of infection rates and the impact of any new variants of the virus.
Health minister Matt Hancock said on Sunday that after each step to ease restrictions, there would be a two-week pause to assess the impact on the wider population before any further relaxation was implemented.
Hopes for a return to normality rest largely on Britain’s fast-moving inoculation programme, which has so far given more than 17.5 million people, a third of the adult population, the first of two doses of vaccine.
The aim is now to give every adult a shot of vaccine by the end of July, and to protect those over 50 and the medically vulnerable by getting them a first vaccine jab by April 15.
The success of the vaccine drive to date has seen the British pound and stock markets climb on hopes of an economic rebound from the pandemic.