England’s non-essential shops could reopen towards the end of March and pubs by Easter if Covid-19 figures are low enough, it is claimed.
Boris Johnson will soon reveal his “road map” for lifting national lockdown restrictions in England and it is expected he will begin with the reopening of schools, possibly in a staggered approach, from March 8.
The Government is said to be considered a three-phase approach for a gradual easing of the third shutdown, with scientists urging No10 not to repeat last year’s mistakes of easing the rules too soon.
After schools reopen to all students next month, the Government will assess the impact on the reproduction number, or R number, before moving to the next phase, it is reported.
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If the R number remains low and infections stay at an “acceptable level”, Mr Johnson will allow non-essential shops to reopen towards the end of March, the i newspaper has reported.
Under the current rules, only essential shops such as supermarkets, newsagents and pet stores are allowed to remain open.
Mr Johnson hinted on Saturday that non-essential shops would be the first places to reopen after pupils return to schools.
If there is still no significant rise in the R number in the week up to Good Friday (April 2), pubs, restaurants, hotels and other hospitality venues would then be given the go-ahead to open from the Easter weekend, the i reported.
It is expected pubs and restaurant customers would still face some restrictions to curb the spread of the virus. It is thought punters will be encouraged to drink outdoors.
Social distancing and face mask rules could remain in place through the rest of the year and into 2022 as the vaccine rollout continues.
The report suggested staycations – but not foreign holidays – would also be permitted.
An unnamed Government official told the i: “My understanding is the Prime Minister is encouraged by a slew of data coming out that shows the positive impact the current lockdown has had.
“By March, there’s also a good chance that almost, if not all over-50s and younger vulnerable groups would have been given at least their first dose of a vaccine.”
Addressing leaks in a number of weekend newspapers, a No10 source dismissed “speculation”, saying: “We haven’t made decisions and won’t be able to until we’ve got the data.
“The optimism is increasing at Downing Street and we may well be enjoying a pint in the pub by Easter if the data continues to improve in the coming weeks.”
The UK’s current R rate is estimated to be between 0.7 and 0.9, the first time since July it has been below one nationwide.
Speaking to reporters on Saturday, the Prime Minister said he is “optimistic” he will be able to set out plans for a “cautious” easing of coronavirus lockdown restrictions in England in just over a week.
He said that while the overall number of cases remained high, the infection rate was starting to fall while the rollout of the vaccination programme has made “huge progress”.
“I’m optimistic, I won’t hide if from you. I’m optimistic but we have to be cautious,” he told reporters during a visit to a vaccine manufacturing facility in Teesside.
His comments came as scientists continued to urge caution over the easing of the current controls when Mr Johnson sets out his “roadmap” out of lockdown for England on February 22.
One scientist advising the Government said ministers risked a third wave of the pandemic as big as the current one if they moved too quickly while senior NHS figures said the health service remained under huge pressure.
Ministers however are confident the vaccination programme is on track to meet the target of getting an offer of a jab to everyone in the top four priority groups – including the over-70s – by the deadline of Monday.
Mr Johnson said the efficacy of the vaccines in helping to drive down infection rates would be the key to determining how quickly they could ease restrictions.
“Although the number is beginning to come down and perhaps starting to come down quite fast we need to look at the data very, very hard,” he said.
“Something also that will be very important is the efficacy of the vaccines – are they working in the way that we hope that they are – and making sure they are really helping, along with the lockdown, to drive down the incidence. That is the key thing.”
The Prime Minister said that the Government’s priority remained the opening of schools in England on March 8, to be followed by other sectors as conditions allowed.
“Our children’s education is our number one priority, but then working forward, getting non-essential retail open as well and then, in due course, as and when we can prudently and cautiously, of course we want to be opening hospitality as well,” he said.
“I will be trying to set out as much as I possibly can, in as much detail as I can, always understanding that we have to be wary of the pattern of disease. We don’t want to be forced into any kind of retreat or reverse ferret.”
He has previously signalled that the previous tier system will be scrapped. A source told the i that the Prime Minister has decided not to return to the tier system.
Mr Johnson, who was visiting the Fujifilm Diosynth Biotechnologies plant in Billingham where the new Novavax vaccine will be manufactured, echoed Health Secretary Matt Hancock who suggested a combination of vaccines and therapeutics could make Covid-19 a “manageable disease” like seasonal flu.
“A new disease like this will take time for humanity to adapt to but we are,” he said.
“I do think that in due time it will become something that we simply live with. Some people will be more vulnerable than others – that’s inevitable.”
Earlier, Professor Steven Riley, a member of the Spi-M modelling group, warned that while the rollout of the vaccination programme had been “incredibly successful” it did not mean controls could simply be dropped.
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“No vaccine is perfect. I think scientists are genuinely worried. We don’t want to show that it is an excellent but not perfect vaccine by having another large wave in the UK,” he told the BBC Radio 4 Today programme.
“If for some reason we were to choose to just pretend it (coronavirus) wasn’t here any more, then there is the potential to go back to a wave that is a similar size to the one that we are in now.”
Meanwhile, NHS Confederation chairman Lord Adebowale expressed concern that March 8 was still too soon for schools to return.
He said the NHS workforce was “on its knees” and “cannot afford another peak.”
“I understand the pressure to open schools. We need to do so very safely. I think mid or late March is when we should be reassessing,” he told the Today programme.
However, Mr Johnson remains under pressure from some Tory MPs to get on with lifting the restrictions and reopening the economy as quickly as possible.
Former cabinet minister David Davis said: “There will come a point where there will be a death rate from Covid but it is at a normal level and then we have to cope with that. Obviously we still try to prevent it but we accept it.”